The contrast on the SEC Championship coaches’ teleconference call Sunday night was sharp.
First up was Georgia’s Kirby Smart. He’s the experienced coach, the one who will for a third consecutive year be taking his team to the conference title game Saturday in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Yet Smart was as cautious as the guard of a Brinks truck. He deflected every question as if it was a burglar trying to find a back way into the Bulldogs’ football vault.
Then there was LSU’s Ed Orgeron. The gravelly-voiced, Cajun coach of the No. 2-ranked Tigers was as relaxed and loose as he might be before a spring scrimmage.
Orgeron spoke glowingly of Saturday’s opponent, the No. 4-ranked Bulldogs (11-1), but also coolly and confidently about his own squad, which will be making its first appearance in the SEC Championship game since 2011, and the first ever with Orgeron calling the shots.
“Our guys understand the magnitude of it,” Orgeron said early in his 30-minute Q&A session. “But I really have confidence in this team’s mental approach that it’s the next game up.”
It was a fitting juxtaposition considering contrasting styles of the teams that will meet Saturday at 4 p.m. (CBS) to decide the conference championship. There’s the highly-favored Tigers, who have been scoring points at a record rate all season, versus one of the stingiest defenses history of Georgia football.
The nation’s No. 2 scoring offense (48.7 points per game) against the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense (10.7 ppg). A match made in football heaven.
“Well, obviously it was a great season; we’re very proud of that,” Orgeron said of the Tigers’ undefeated regular season, which saw them win by an average margin of 26.6 points per game. “… But I’ve told our team, let’s finish the season, let’s finish the SEC and then see where we’re ranked.”
Early Las Vegas betting lines on Sunday installed LSU as a favorite ranging from 4.0 to 6.5 points. The Tigers are coming off a 50-7 win over Texas A&M in Baton Rouge Saturday night.
The two teams have four common opponents this season: Vanderbilt, Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M. Both went 4-0 in those games, the Bulldogs winning by an average margin of 11.0 and LSU by 22.0.
Said Smart of the Tigers: “They’ve got a very complete team. They’ve obviously had some guys injured and banged up on defense. But they’ve got a tremendous defense, too. We saw that last year. It’s not like there’s a lot of weaknesses when you start talking about the caliber of program and the caliber of team Ed’s put together.”
Georgia and LSU played last season in Baton Rouge. The Tigers won 36-16.
This will be their third SEC Championship matchup in Atlanta. The Bulldogs won 34-14 in 2005, while LSU won 34-13 in 2003 and 42-10 in 2011.
Besides the offensive and defensive prowess of the respective programs, another contrast is the health of the teams. Georgia has been dealing with some significant injuries.
The Bulldogs already were without leading receiver Lawrence Cager, who was lost for the year to an ankle injury last week, when they saw star running back D’Andre Swift go out with a shoulder injury in the third quarter against Georgia Tech.
Smart said after the Tech game they expect Swift to be able to play. He didn’t offer any new information on Sunday.
“Not much to update; everybody’s the same status they were yesterday,” he said.
Such was the tone and cryptic detail with which Smart answered most every question that came his way. The only time he expounded was when asked about a particular LSU player or coach.
For instance, he went on-and-on about LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.
The Tigers’ senior signal-caller became the SEC’s all-time passing leader during his performance against Texas A&M Saturday night. Burrow broke the record of 4,275 yards held by Kentucky’s Tim Couch since 1998 with a third-quarter pass completion. Burrow, who transferred from Ohio State two years ago, completed 23 of 32 passes for 352 yards giving him 4,366 for the season.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” Smart said of Burrow. “He has tremendous balance, body control, pocket presence. When you wrap all those things together (with his passing ability), it makes for a combination of probably one of the best quarterback that I’ve seen. I’ve seen tons of guys that can run, but very few that keep their eyes downfield like he does. He’s calm in the pocket, extends plays, breaks tackles, throws completions. He doesn’t have a lot of weaknesses when it comes to the decisions he makes and the weapons he has around him.”
Orgeron spoke with the same level admiration about Georgia’s defense. He did not quibble when it came to his assessment.
He said the Bulldogs’ unit “is the best defense we faced all year.”
“Kirby’s done a phenomenal job,” Oregeron said. “They’ll pressure; they'll play man; they’ll play zone. I think it’s overall comprehensive with the pass rush that they have and their abilities to cover one-on-one. I think that’s what makes it outstanding.”
For the record, Orgeron expects to see Swift and every other Georgia player currently dealing with some sort of bump, bruise or sprain.
“In a big game like this, people miraculously get well at the end of the week,” he said with a laugh. “I’m sure their best players will play.”
Orgeron lauded the Bulldogs for coming back from a stunning midseason loss to South Carolina to win every game the rest of the way.
“They’ve faced some adversity and they climbed back up the hill,” he said. “That says a lot about their team and the coaching staff.”
Asked whether playing in Atlanta would give the Bulldogs a home-field advantage, he said it might.
“I'm sure there will be a big (Georgia) crowd there,” Orgeron said. “But LSU is going to travel well. They’re going to be loud and proud. I expect it to be a great crowd for both sides. It will be a tremendous SEC matchup.”
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