Can Georgia beat LSU? Yes. How might Georgia go about beating LSU? Two things would have to happen: Kirby Smart’s critics would be proved wrong, which would mean Smart, in the end, being right.
Smart has coached this season as if it was the ’90s. (Not the 1890s, we stipulate.) He has built his Bulldogs not around his quarterback, which is the 21st Century thing to do at every level of football, but around old-timey stuff — running the ball, stopping the run, eating your greens. He has insisted that, “To win in our league, you have to be able to run the ball, and it’s not easy to run the ball.”
There is about Smart more than a hint of arrogance. He gives the impression that he, and perhaps he alone, knows what works. But something has worked for Georgia. His Bulldogs are 33-3 over the past three regular seasons. They’re about to play for the SEC title for a third year running. They’re positioned to make the College Football Playoff for a second time in three seasons. That’s not nothing.
It might surprise you to learn that the Bulldogs have thrown the ball more than in the two previous years with Jake Fromm as quarterback. They average 28.5 passes and 37.9 rushes; in 2017, they averaged 20.3 and 44.9. (We note that Georgia has played many more close games this season than in the past two, and running comes harder when games are tight.) That said, Smart hasn’t gone with the coast-to-coast trend and thrown open his gates to let wide-open offenses reap the whirlwind.
Georgia’s running game hasn’t been overwhelming. The Bulldogs are fourth among SEC teams in yards per attempt, fifth in yards per game. They averaged roughly 30 more yards rushing than LSU, which averages — pause for emphasis — 170 more yards passing. Since Oct. 5, Georgia hasn’t scored more than 27 points in a league game; against every SEC opponent save Auburn, LSU managed at least 36 points. The Bulldogs averaged 25.3 points in eight conference games; the Tigers averaged 44.3.
If this game becomes a shootout — and the CFP has become a repository of shootouts, and this is essentially a playoff game — Georgia will lose. Yes, the Bulldogs beat Oklahoma 54-48 in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018, but that was with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Terry Godwin and Javon Wims, and that was also against a Big 12 defense. These Bulldogs aren’t built to score like that. They don’t have the receivers. (Lawrence Cager is surely out for the duration; George Pickens is suspended for Saturday’s first half.)
But what, we ask, if Georgia’s defense — it ranks among the top five nationally in all major categories; only South Carolina managed even 20 points against it, that in double-OT with a pick-six – can do what no team has done and slow LSU? Would the Tigers get impatient? Would LSU’s defense, which is only 35th nationally in yards against, wobble when asked to make the sort of stops it hasn’t often had to make? (LSU beat Auburn by three, Alabama by five and Texas by seven. Nobody else has come within two touchdowns.)
What if not blowing people out proves an advantage? Georgia has played five one-score games. Here’s where the other part of Smart’s buttoned-down blueprint has been brought to bear: A team that can run the ball – and one with a quarterback who doesn’t throw interceptions – is a team that can hold a late lead. That happened against Florida. That happened against Texas A&M. (Didn’t quite happen against Auburn, though. Georgia had three consecutive three-and-outs after going up 21-0.)
For as much as been written about Fromm, a goodly chunk by this correspondent, he has thrown interceptions in only one game. He had three in the South Carolina horror show – he also fumbled a snap – but none since. Yes, he passed for 1,981 fewer yards than LSU’s Joe Burrow, who’d have to mess up Saturday not to win the Heisman Trophy, but Fromm has been in four playoff-caliber games. (Two SEC championships, one CFP semi, one CFP final.) Burrow has worked none.
One thing more about LSU: The Tigers’ season was made that long Saturday in Tuscaloosa. They never trailed. They led by 20 at the half. They survived Nick Saban and Tua Tagovailoa, then semi-healthy. But what if Alabama, the team to beat in both the conference and the land since 2008, wasn’t a true measure? The Tide defense was, by its standards, abysmal. In the two games that mattered, Bama yielded 46 points to LSU and 48 (OK, two scores were pick-sixes) to Auburn.
South Carolina scratched out 20 points against Georgia. The Gamecocks managed 23 against Alabama. They mustered 24 over their final three games against Appalachian State, Texas A&M and Clemson. Here’s a sentence seldom typed: This Bama defense made more than a few teams look good. What if the game on which LSU made its reputation is a panful of fool’s gold?
What if LSU arrives fat and sassy — it can lose Saturday and still make the playoff; Georgia probably can’t — and falls behind early? What if Georgia throws to get ahead — LSU is 56th nationally in passing yards against — and runs to stay there? What if Burrow and Co. buckle under the pressure of the best defense they’ve seen? What if this become a throwback game, the score in the 20s and not the 40s?
Georgia wins, that’s what. And Kirby Smart, throwback coach, gets to say, “I told y’all so.” Which I’m sure he will.
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