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The 2019 SEC Championship: What to Watch For

The Tigers are back in Atlanta looking to slay another big-time opponent on the road to at least one championship.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The thing about climbing a mountain is it doesn’t just stop because you’ve reached the top.

As big as beating Alabama was for this team and this program, it was ultimately a means to an end. The SEC West title and a spot in the SEC Championship Game. Where yet another top-10 opponent waits: the fourth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.

In the playoff era conference titles don’t seem to mean quite as much, at least in terms of the discourse. And in this particular year, with the College Football Playoff rankings having a very well-defined top three, many think LSU gets in regardless of Saturday’s result.

But a conference championship still means a lot in my book. Even in this Golden Era of LSU football in the 21st Century, this is just the sixth time the Tigers have even made the trip. A fifth title, with a third different head coach, would be pretty damn cool.

And on top of that, there’s a chance to clinch that No. 1 seed and give the program its best shot to bring home another championship.

What To Watch For On Saturday

Back Again

LSU’s sixth time in the SEC title game and the third match-up against the local Bulldogs.

These two teams met in one of Ed Orgeron’s signature wins a year ago, but a year later there’s definitely a different feel. Georgia still owns the SEC East, and will have a spot in the playoffs for the second time if they can find a way to win, but they haven’t felt quite as dominant in 2019 as they appeared. LSU’s the flashy offense with the Heisman candidate quarterback and the incoming top-three recruiting class.

But this team shouldn’t be underestimated. Georgia still has one of the four or five most talented rosters in the country. In terms of raw numbers, they’ve out-recruited LSU overall, even if this year’s results don’t quite match up.

Kirby Smart seems like the right man for the right time at Georgia, ascending right as 30 years of population explosion in the Atlanta metro area is starting to yield consistently outstanding talent. Georgia’s always been a talent-rich state, but they’re starting to break into the Texas/Florida class in the Southeast, and the University of Georgia will always be in a prime spot to take advantage of that. And as a result we’re seeing the state become a regular battleground in recruiting, including for LSU.

And to date, Smart’s not only modeled his program after his previous employer — Alabama — but a very specific version; the early years of the title dynasty. Georgia’s a boa constrictor on both sides of the ball. Dominate time of possession and control the line of scrimmage on offense, with a defense that cuts off big plays and forces offenses to solve a puzzle.

The latter has been on point this year. Georgia leads the SEC in scoring, total defense, yards per play, rushing, pass efficiency and third-down conversion rate.

Oddly enough, even with disparate narratives about the two units, LSU and Georgia aren’t as far apart as you might think, defensively. In conference games, the Bulldogs’ defensive success rate has been less than a percentage point better than LSU’s (63.6 compared to 62.7), and just two points better on third-down (28 percent compared to 30.6).

The difference has been big plays; Georgia allows a 15-plus-yard run or 20-plus-yard pass on just 7.4 percent of their plays, compared to 12.5 for the Tigers. Just 37 total explosive plays allowed to SEC teams, versus 70 for LSU. But it’s cut both ways; the Tigers have forced 39 three-and-outs and 18 turnovers compared to 34 and 13 for UGA and 109 total havoc plays (sacks, tackles for loss, turnovers or pass break-ups) versus 87 for the Dawgs.

Georgia hasn’t been quite as aggressive, but they’ve been able to hold opponents down to the tune of just 21 total red-zone appearances. LSU has been more aggressive, but more vulnerable.

Pop the Clutch

That aggression doesn’t extend to the Bulldog offense either, which hasn’t changed much from Jim Chaney to James Coley this season.

They’re efficient — 29th nationally in SP+, third in the league in yards per play (in conference) with a 46-percent success rate and 43.6-percent conversion rate on third down. Those numbers just stand in stark contrast to the SEC’s other top programs, like Alabama and LSU this year, who are among the best in the country.

The Bulldogs are still primarily a one-back, pro-style attack, but they don’t have last year’s options and it shows. Particularly in the running game, where D’Andre Swift is the only back averaging double-digit touches. Brian Herrien is serviceable, but they don’t use him nearly as much as Elijah Holyfield in 2018.

Swift is a stud, there’s no doubt. But he’s the show for this running game, and he may not be at full health.

Likewise, Jake Fromm will be without the majority of his wide receiver production between the injured Lawrence Cager and freshman George Pickens, who will be suspended for the first half after starting a fight with a Georgia Tech DB last week. And that’s problematic for a veteran quarterback that has seen a pretty big dip in his production and efficiency from 2018.

Replacing the top five targets from last season always seemed like a tough ask last offseason, but Georgia should have more than enough talent to work a rebuild quickly. In theory, a quarterback with Fromm’s experience would make up for a lot of that, but it just hasn’t happened. On film, he looks very unsure of himself. Hesitant to pull the trigger, and afraid to make a mistake. He’s not anticipating, or trusting guys to make plays. Cager was the outlier there, and without him, Fromm’s barely over 50 percent as a passer in his last five games. He avoids mistakes, but he just doesn’t make many plays.

Honestly this offense reminds me of a better-executed version of LSU’s offenses from 2011-2012. And despite the plaudits for Fromm, there’s a definite sense that his coaches don’t trust him. If Georgia has to rely on him to try and keep pace with LSU’s attack, it’s hard to imagine it working out.

Georgia will want to rely on the clear strength of their outfit — the SEC’s top offensive line. They’ll look to stay ahead of the chains, manage risk and keep the offense on the field with manageable throws and the running game. Drag this game down, clutch the mat and lower the margins.

But that game plan will completely depend on whether or not the LSU offense does its job.

It’s easy to like this match-up for LSU. Georgia’s a talented team, but the strengths and weaknesses of these teams don’t really match-up well. The defense that finally stops Joe Burrow and this offense will be one that can not only get pressure on him, but get him on the turf, and that’s not really Georgia’s game.

LSU has been able to beat teams so many ways this season. If you man up outside, load the box and send pressure, Burrow and the receivers beat you down the field or on hot throws. If you try to play with two high safeties and limit the big plays, he can beat you on check-downs and shallow crossers. Burrow is going to make the right call, and is in complete command. And on top of that, we’ve seen Clyde Edwards-Helaire emerge as one of the best runners in the country over the last month. That’s just a lot for any defense to handle, and the Bulldogs haven’t seen anything like it this season.

For the Tigers, it just comes down to playing their game. Spread the field, play with tempo and take what Georgia gives. They’ll probably try and play off and count on the front seven to handle the running game. Where that may get interesting for LSU will be in the red zone, as it did with Auburn. The offensive line will have to make blocks in the big moments, and Burrow will have to make smart calls. Turn those opportunities into touchdowns, and Georgia will struggle to keep pace.

On defense, again, the match-up favors LSU in the macro. The Ole Miss game has skewed the Tiger rush defense numbers, but they’ve been stout all year. What’s worked has been quick throws to inside receivers matched up on nickel players, linebackers and safeties. Georgia wants to rely more on screens or shots down the field off play-action. And the running game will be more zone and power without the read and other gap-displacement plays that Ole Miss had success with. And of course, Fromm will never be mistaken for John Rhys Plumlee.

LSU should be able to roll a safety down and use numbers versus the run while the outside corners man up. The key will be tackling and taking Georgia off schedule however possible. If they can grind out three or four yards on first and second down, that offensive line should be able to get short-yardage push somewhat regularly, even if LSU does play well.

Block Out the Noise

We know what to expect in the SEC Championship, but this program is still moving into some unknown territory beyond this. The playoffs, with an early signing period in recruiting, a Heisman ceremony and the whole postseason banquet circuit all in the middle of prep, will be a very different animal.

Hopefully, LSU will deal with it the way they’ve dealt with everything this season. One day at a time. Handle the problem that’s in front of you first, then on to the next one. Saturday is the start to that new season. Georgia’s a good team with a ton of talent, and the thought of them putting together a complete game recalls what I wrote before last year’s regular season match-up:

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.

The shoe’s on the other foot here — if LSU plays their best game they will win this game. But the Tigers need to be prepared to do that. Don’t worry about playoff rankings or anything else beyond beating the opponent that’s in front of you.

Block out the noise. Be champions.