ATHENS — Kirby Smart has done a great job as Georgia’s coach. Over-the-moon well, really.
But he hasn’t done very well in the SEC Championship game. He’s 1-3 in the league’s marquee contest, losing the past three by the combined score of 113-62. That breaks down to an average score of 38-21.
In other words, they haven’t really been close.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0 SEC) seek to reverse that trend Saturday as they face No. 14 LSU (9-3, 6-2) for the conference title at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s the fifth time in the past six years that Georgia has represented the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship game.
The Bulldogs also were ranked No. 1 and favored by a touchdown over No. 3 Alabama last year when they played in this game. Georgia lost 41-24, but left undeterred and managed to win the national championship anyway. Fittingly, it ended with a redemptive win over the Crimson Tide.
This year, Georgia enters the game as a 17-point favorite over an LSU team that plummeted in the rankings after a loss to Texas A&M on Saturday. But the Tigers vow to make it as hard as possible on the Bulldogs.
“Yeah, we’re playing the best team, but we’re coming with it all,” LSU junior cornerback Mekhi Garner said. “Maybe we can’t go to the national championship, but this is our national championship game.”
Georgia has faced such conviction from opponents all season.
Here are five things to keep an eye on as the Bulldogs head into Saturday’s game:
1. Geaux Tiguhs!
If Georgia fans have felt the angst ramp up some as Saturday’s game against LSU draws closer, it’s with good reason. The Bulldogs have a fairly poor history against the Tigers, especially in this game.
Georgia is 1-3 against LSU in championship games, though they’ve met in such a game only once in recent years. That’s when Joe Burrow and Ed Orgeron’s Tigers defeated the Bulldogs 37-10 in 2019 on the way to winning the national championship. That 15-0 season by LSU was the last perfect season in college football, something Georgia is trying to duplicate this season.
Georgia also watched LSU hoist the SEC trophy under coach Nick Saban in 2003 (34-13) and coach Les Miles in 2011 (42-10). Quarterback D.J. Shockley and the 13th-ranked Bulldogs shocked No. 3 LSU 34-14 in 2005.
As for Smart, LSU is one of only two SEC teams he hasn’t beaten during his seven-year tenure as Georgia’s coach. He’s 0-2 against the Tigers, having also lost to them 36-16 in Baton Rouge in 2018 when the Bulldogs were ranked No. 2. Smart is 0-1 vs. Ole Miss, in Oxford in 2016.
2. Jayden Daniels’ health
All indications are that LSU star quarterback Jayden Daniels will be good to go for Saturday’s matchup. For the Tigers, that’s extremely good news.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior transfer from Arizona State means everything to LSU’s offense. In fact, heading into Saturday’s contest, Daniels has accounted for 65% of the Tigers’ 5,206 yards of offensive production. That includes 2,566 yards and 15 touchdowns through the air and 824 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.
It’s the latter stat that has LSU concerned about Saturday. Daniels suffered a sprained ankle on a failed two-point conversion play in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 38-23 loss to Texas A&M. Daniels had the ankle taped and came back in the game, but noticeably hobbled the rest of the way.
Daniels has gotten treatment all week in Baton Rouge while getting very little on-field work with the Tigers. But his level of mobility against Georgia will be key. LSU ranks 122nd in FBS in sacks allowed, with 3.42 per game, which has contributed to 208 negative yards logged by Daniels this season.
Daniels’ backup is Garrett Nussmeier. A 6-2, 194-pound redshirt freshman from Lake Charles, La., Nussmeier is the son of former NFL player Doug Nussmeier. He has played in five games and completed 62% of 42 passes for 333 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
3. Red-zone issues
Georgia comes into the game with its own set of offensive concerns. Namely, that has been red-zone scoring.
That may seem ironic, since the Bulldogs rank No. 1 in the nation in red-zone scoring. Once Georgia has reached the opponents’ 20-yard line, it has failed to score only twice out of 66 times this season. That equates to 96.9% success.
The problem is they’ve settled for field goals 21 times. Kicker Jack Podlesny is the SEC’s leading scorer, with 124 points on 23 field goals and 55 point-after attempts.
“It’s just execution,” Georgia receiver Ladd McConkey said. “I feel like we have a great game plan; we just have to go out and do it. Whether it’s not running the best route, not blocking the route, not making the right read, there’s just a bunch of little things that go into it. That’s what we work on every single day.”
Conversely, LSU is pretty good at stuffing offenses close to its goal line. Opponents have scored touchdowns only 43% of the time in the red zone (17-of-40). They’ve converted on fourth down only 39% of the time.
4. Stetson Bennett in the Benz
Saturday will mark 91 days since Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but, oh, was it a good day.
The Bulldogs’ sixth-year senior signal-caller completed 25 of 31 passes for 368 yards and two touchdowns in a 49-3 rout of then-No. 11 Oregon in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game. Bennett also ran the ball twice and scored on a 1-yard run.
It was the most efficient offensive effort of Bennett’s career, as the Bulldogs went 8-for-8 on third downs and 6-for-6 in the red zone.
Georgia’s priority Saturday will be giving Bennett maximum protection. LSU’s defense is led by a pair of edge rushers in B.J. Ojulari and Harold Perkins. A freshman, Perkins leads the team with 6.5 sacks and 14 quarterback pressures, with four of those sacks coming in one game against Arkansas. Ojulari, a Marietta native and the brother of former Bulldog Azeez Ojulari, has 5.5 sacks.
Georgia will counter with the nation’s No. 2 offensive line in terms of sacks allowed. The Bulldogs have given up only seven all season, or 0.58 a game.
Considering how far the schools are apart, there is a decent amount of crossover between the two schools. For instance, the Tigers’ wide receivers coach, Cortez Hankton, in his first year under coach Brian Kelly, coached wideouts at Georgia for four seasons.
As for players, sophomore safety Major Burns began his career at UGA before transferring to LSU last year. A midseason neck injury sidelined him for several games in the middle of the season. But he is back now, has played in seven games with 24 tackles and three pass breakups and is expected to play against the Bulldogs on Saturday.
LSU backup linebacker West Weeks, a 6-2, 238-pound sophomore, is from Watkinsville and is the son of Georgia letterman David Weeks, whose middle son, Whit, committed to play for the Tigers next year.
LSU running back John Emery of New Orleans once was a Georgia commitment. As the Tigers’ No. 2 tailback, the 5-11, 220-pound senior has 324 yards and five touchdowns on the season.
Georgia has only one player from Louisiana, but he’s a good one. Third-year sophomore Sedrick Van Pran has started 27 consecutive games at center.
The Bulldogs also have a notable transfer from LSU in sophomore Arik Gilbert. However, the 6-5, 255-pound tight end has played in only three of Georgia’s 12 games this season and none in the past five weeks.
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