A brief history of an odd series: UGA-LSU for the SEC title

Georgia and LSU have met in the SEC Championship game three times, the first matchup in 2003 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Alabama stands as the serial breaker of Georgia’s heart. With a championship of some sort at stake, the Bulldogs have assumed a double-digit lead over Bama three times in seven years in a building off Northside Drive and gone 0-for-3. Villains: Amari Cooper, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts and – always and forever – Nick Saban. But Saban’s minions won’t be around Saturday. Such a tragedy, right?

Which isn’t to say that Georgia’s opponent is some mystery guest. On the eight occasions the Bulldogs have won the SEC East, LSU has been waiting in Atlanta half the time. Their first three meetings haven’t been riveting, and in none of the three was a BCS/CFP berth on the line for Georgia. Twice, though, it was for LSU. Yes, life is unfair.

A review of those three encounters follows. Warning: Saban is mentioned.

2003: The SEC title tilt was the teams' second meeting of the season. The first was a classic. On Sept. 20 in Baton Rouge, LSU led 10-3 and was positioned to kill the game. Quarterback Matt Mauck fumbled at the Georgia 15. The Bulldogs' Derrick White recovered, whereupon chaos reared its head.

After a penalty, Georgia faced first-and-18 at their 7. Tyson Browning turned David Greene's screen pass into an epic 93-yard touchdown – he caught the ball at the Georgia 3 – that tied the score. Had Georgia prevailed, Browning's score might be remembered as fondly as Richt Era benchmarks P-44-Haynes and 70-X-Takeoff. It isn't, which is too bad: That play was named Texas Crack. 

Devery Henderson returned the kickoff from the 49. Months later, Mark Richt would say: “They wiped out two of our guys. They just tackled them.” On third-and-4 from the Georgia 34, Skyler Green was supposed to run a pick – those are illegal, but never mind – for Michael Clayton. For reasons unknown, Green improvised. He ran through the Georgia secondary into the end zone, where he gathered in Mauck’s pass, which was thrown under heavy pressure.

Folks around Baton Rouge insist that victory put LSU back on the national map. (The Tigers had upset Tennessee for the 2001 SEC title, but that team carried three losses.) Had Georgia won in Death Valley, Ole Miss and Eli Manning would have won the West. Richt would say: “We missed our shot. We could have stopped them before they got going. When we played again, they were better than us.”

Yep. Georgia finished its regular season 10-2, having lost to Florida yet again. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 5 to LSU’s No. 3. (The Tigers had also lost to Florida.) Since the BCS matched only the top two teams, Georgia had no hope of a national title. LSU wiggled its way into the BCS Championship game by routing Georgia 34-13. The Tigers led 17-3 at halftime. Georgia was outgained by 204 yards over the first 21 minutes. Freshman Justin Vincent rushed for 201 yards.

Top-ranked Oklahoma lost the Big 12 title game to Kansas State by 28 points, but the goofy ol’ BCS paired the Sooners, as opposed to one-loss USC, against LSU. The Tigers won in the Superdome to give Saban his first ring.

2005: Saban was gone, off coaching the Miami Dolphins. (That lasted two years.) In his stead was Les Miles. His Tigers arrived at the Georgia Dome having lost only after blowing a 21-0 lead to Tennessee in a game moved to a Monday night in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

For Georgia, this was another what-if season. Under D.J. Shockley, who’d waited his turn behind Greene, the Bulldogs moved to No. 4 in the Associated Press rankings in late October. Shockley was hurt in a victory over Arkansas and missed the next game, which was – but of course – Florida in Jax. Behind Joe Tereshinski III, Georgia lost 17-10. With Shockley back, it lost 31-30 to Auburn on the fourth-and-10 Devin Aromashodu catch/run/fumble/end-zone recovery/subsequent winning field goal.

The Bulldogs were No. 13 on the first Saturday of December; LSU was No 3. (USC and Texas, which had begun the season Nos. 1 and 2, would meet in the Vince Young Rose Bowl.) Two quick Shockley touchdown passes put Georgia ahead 14-0. LSU closed within a touchdown. Then Bryan McClendon – still the only unbeaten head coach in Bulldogs annals, albeit in a interim role after Richt’s 2015 firing – blocked a punt to set up a Shockley touchdown run. It was 21-7 at the half. It ended 34-14.

For this rousing victory, Georgia was rewarded with an exotic trip to … Atlanta! The Sugar Bowl was moved to the Georgia Dome because of Katrina. The Bulldogs would fall behind West Virginia 28-0 – this was the game that make us start to wonder about Willie Martinez – and lose 38-35. It was a strange ending to a strange season, but it was an SEC championship season, Georgia’s last under Richt.

2011: This seemed a mismatch. Georgia, which had opened the season by being blown away by Boise State in the very same Dome, was a 13-1/2-point underdog. The first 20 minutes were indeed no contest: The Bulldogs jumped ahead 10-0. It coulda/shoulda been twice that much. Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell dropped touchdown passes. Blair Walsh missed a field-goal attempt. The nation's No. 1 team finished the first half without a first down. (This was the beginning of Todd Grantham's short-lived rock-star status.)

And yet: LSU trailed only 10-7, thanks to the Honey Badger. Tyrann Mathieu returned a punt 62 yards to score. (Actually, he returned it 61 yards before flipping the ball to the line judge, but the officials didn’t notice his gaffe.) He recovered an Aaron Murray fumble to set up the go-ahead touchdown. Then he returned another punt 47 yards; LSU scored in four plays to make it 21-10.

It remains the oddest SEC Championship game. Georgia outgained LSU by 59 yards and lost by 32 points. The Tigers’ Jordan Jefferson passed for 30 yards. The No. 1 team was 1-for-9 on third down. We didn’t know it then, but mighty LSU wouldn’t score again. It lost to Alabama – which it had beaten 9-6 on Nov. 5 in overtime – 21-0 in the Superdome for national title. On that numbing night, the Tigers made five first downs and 93 yards.

It has taken LSU eight years to make it back to Atlanta, and it’s a totally different LSU. Ed Orgeron, who became the interim coach when Miles was fired in September 2016, was given the job on a permanent basis. It seemed a mistake, at least to this correspondent. Lo and behold, Orgeron has built a team that’s better on offense than defense. It has no Honey Badger, but it has Joe Burrow, who’ll probably win the Heisman Trophy.

Fun fact: Every time LSU has beaten Georgia in a roofed Atlanta stadium, the Tigers have played for the national title in New Orleans. That’s the site of the CFP final, and there’s one guarantee: Nick Saban won’t break anybody’s heart en route.

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