Entering this season, the universal consensus was that the two most daunting of the various daunting challenges on LSU’s 2018 schedule would be Georgia and Alabama.
Here we are, in week seven, and the Tigers have faired a good bit better than most projections indicated. But Georgia has been every bit the team they were expected to be, and will come in to Baton Rouge ranked second in the country, with a throng of Bulldog faithful in tow, looking to conquer.
Make no mistake about it — the home team faces some long odds here. Frankly, if LSU and Georgia both play their best games, Georgia wins. LSU will need some help, whether it’s sloppy execution, turnovers or a big play on special teams.
But there’s a reason college football is one of the best, dumbest and unpredictable sports out there. It’s a game played with 22 variables on the field constituted by 18 to 22-year-old men. Weird things can, and weirder things have, happened. We should all be so privileged as to watch it all play out in one of the loudest, wildest and best venues in the country.
And everyone reading this damn well better be ready to help make it so.
What To Watch For On Saturday
Georgia fired Mark Richt and hired Kirby Smart, for all intents and purposes, to bring Alabama to Athens, and so far, that plan appears to have worked out. In terms of results there’s been a conference title, playoff appearance and back-to-back huge recruiting classes that are lapping the field in the SEC East.
On the field, this year’s Dawgs have looked like something of an off-brand version of the Crimson Tide. No, not Diet Bama — a less-satisfying facsimile — more of a cheaper knockoff. In particular, this Georgia squad looks very much like the pre-Kiffin Bama teams: an incredibly efficient, if inelegant, machine. Mostly a one-back set, pro-style offense built heavily around the run with efficient passing, with a defense that doesn’t necessarily attack and force a ton of negative plays, but also never gives them up.
Georgia’s group sits at dead last in the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss (averaging about half of last year’s unit), but lead the league in yards per play allowed and sit 19th in the country in S&P+. The Bulldogs force teams to drive the ball and gamble that you’ll make a mistake before they do. They do have some vulnerabilities, as we’ll discuss, but they’ve allowed only 59 plays from scrimmage of 10 yards or longer, and just nine plays of longer than 20 yards all year.
On offense, Georgia dominates at the line of scrimmage with the league’s top running game, and combines that with its second-most efficient passing attack. To touch back on that Bama analogy, Jake Fromm is a better version of those Bama quarterbacks (the recent vintages have been much better, obviously); an efficient and accurate pocket passer who understands Jim Chaney’s offense and knows how to execute it well.
The passing game thrives on using levels concepts, crossing routes and quick hitches to take advantage of man-to-man coverage for easy completions on first down. With the Bulldogs’ running game, it’s a safe bet that most teams are going to roll a safety down and man-up in that situation. They’ll take measured shots off play-action, and use screens and a lot of passes to the backs in general — Fromm is well-trained to go through his progression. It’s a very balanced passing game that makes use of a lot of targets. And there’s no dominant wideout in this group, but there’s no real weak link either. They can spread the ball around and beat you with a lot of different guys.
The running game is primarily based around the wide, tight and split zone plays, and again, can throw a lot of very talented bodies at you. Georgia is comfortable rotating D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, Brian Herrien and James Cook and just letting the hot hand beat you behind a strong offensive line. One thing to remember is that Chaney has more of a tactical approach than a strategic one that can use players in very specific ways. There’s overlap, but there may be a pattern there for Dave Aranda to decode.
Meanwhile, LSU’s offensive gameplan shouldn’t be all that dissimilar. Steve Ensminger wants to open things up and throw the ball more, but he also has a team that should be a little more comfortable playing a grind-it-out style.
And thing is, that might just be the best thing here.
Georgia’s had some problems in run defense. They’re just 85th in run-defense success rate and allow 4.5 yards per carry on first down. It hasn’t really mattered all that much, because by the second half of most games the Bulldogs have enough of a lead that teams are forced to pass. And while the pass defense has been incredibly efficient, it’s been more of a catch-and-make-the-tackle group, allowing a 58.6-percent completion rate, but at just 5.2 yards per attempt.
Provided the defense holds up, Ensminger can afford to be patient and approach things with a probative mindset. Poke around and see what hurts. Establish the run and use play-action and misdirection throws, but take what the defense will give. Use the backs in the passing game, as well as tight ends. Keep the chains moving and make Georgia gamble a little more. And if you can keep the Bulldog offense sidelined, that can limit the rushing attack as well. LSU might be able to have some success on the edge, which Missouri was able to set in the running game. And if you can make the Bulldogs linebackers commit to shoring that up, it’ll loosen up the middle a bit.
Georgia’s been able to make a lot of games academic by halftime. They’ve scored three touchdowns off turnovers/a blocked punt in the half against both Missouri and South Carolina, and had another cheap score set up by an interception return in that Mizzou game. And while that’s not a knock on them, it does raise the question as to what might happen when an opponent can keep things tight and keep pounding at that run defense.
Georgia’s a good team, there’s no question about that. But they’re also a team that’s been used to fast starts — often on the back of mistakes by their opponents — and then just leaning on the team to finish things off in the second half. They’ve yet to really be pressed to fight an opponent off; certainly not one with LSU’s talent level.
Whether that will matter or not is up to the Tigers, and the Tiger Stadium crowd on Saturday. Georgia has their vulnerabilities. We talked about the run defense already, but in addition to that, the offense has completed just seven of 22 third-down conversions on the road this year. Fromm’s completion rate drops from an outstanding 72 percent to 56 on third down, and both of his interceptions have come in third-and-long situations.
LSU’s key will be to do whatever they can to make the Bulldogs uncomfortable. The defensive line will have to keep their shoulders square, get up field and defeat the reach blocks on Georgia’s stretch plays. Observe their block down, step down rules and keep the linebackers clean to track the running backs.
Dave Aranda’s going to have to trust his cornerbacks outside on man-to-man coverage, and bring Grant Delpit down into the box to help control the flats, especially against the Georgia screen game. And first and foremost, they’re going to have to find a way to get pressure on Fromm. Press on the corners with Greedy Williams and Kristian Fulton will slow this up a bit, but Breiden Fehoko and Rashard Lawrence have to do a better job of getting up the field. Likewise, Aranda will need to get creative with how he brings the linebackers, or Delpit. Fromm is the best and most accurate quarterback LSU has seen to date. The Tiger defense can’t let him be comfortable.
And some of that has to come from the crowd as well. There’s a legion of Jacobs and Liams and Masons making this trip from Georgia with visions of conquest. Wouldn’t it be fun to ruin that trip? LSU fans have not only taken the Tiger Stadium mystique for granted in recent years, they’ve snatched up a ton of stolen valor over their role in it. The student section has emptied out at half time of every game this year, Ole Miss included. It’s pathetic. And if there’s ever going to be a time for it to end, it’s this game. The No. 2 team in the country. Yes, a 2:30 kick but with some of the best weather that we’ve seen this season. There’s no excuse for those that are able. Show up early, stay late and be loud.
Let’s all get after that ass.