A healthy Jayden Daniels could spell trouble for Georgia defense

ATHENS — When the Georgia-LSU matchup was set for the SEC Championship game a couple of weeks ago, the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs opened as 14-point favorites at many sportsbooks. Since then, that spread has widened to where now it’s possible to find the Tigers getting as many as 17.5 points for Saturday’s title tilt at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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LSU’s 38-23 loss to Texas A&M last weekend in College Station, Texas, certainly has contributed to that trend. But also affecting sentiments about Saturday’s game is the uncertain status of Tigers quarterback Jayden Daniels.

Daniels suffered a sprained ankle late in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M. Daniels was examined in Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday and received a favorable report, but he was wearing a walking boot at the Tigers’ athletic facility Monday.

“We’re pretty optimistic about his ability to practice on Tuesday,” LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “It wasn’t a high-ankle sprain. Those are the things that you concern yourself with because that’s going to limit his mobility. He’s going to need to have, obviously, all of his mobility and more. Early indications look pretty good.”

The next question becomes whether Daniels will be 100% healthy against the Bulldogs. Daniels has been a major problem for opposing defenses all year when he’s well, especially in the second half of the season. His mobility, however, plays a big part in that.

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The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior transfer from Arizona State leads the Tigers in rushing with 824 yards and 11 touchdowns. But he showed dramatic improvement throughout the season as a passer. Daniels enters the Georgia game having completed 68.6% of his passes for 2,566 yards with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Daniels’ pass-efficiency rating of 143.8 is comparable to Georgia’s Stetson Bennett (150.6), who has only one more TD pass (16) while throwing for 3,151 yards and three times the interceptions (6).

“He’s extremely athletic, got a great arm, great release,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of Daniels. “He’s also got a lot of talented players around him. Watching him play, I knew he was going to be a good player. They’ve invested in him. You talk about significantly improving from Game 1 to now, he is unbelievably improved. They’ve done a great job with him.”

It truly has been a tale of two seasons for the Tigers’ offense. During the first half, which included a 40-17 loss at home to Tennessee, LSU sat at 111th in 20-yard play rate, was 58th in the nation in passing and 15th in rushing.

Before backsliding in the loss to A&M, the Tigers had crept into the top 30s in total offense and scoring. They’ll arrive at Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 34th in total yardage (433.7), 55th in passing (241.6) and 36th in rushing (192.1).

The unpredictability and difficulty of corralling a healthy Daniels looms as an every-down challenge for opposing defenses.

“Obviously, he’s a very talented quarterback who knows how to use his feet very well,” Georgia safety Christopher Smith said. “He makes very good decisions. It’s definitely something we’re going to have to game-plan for. Anytime a quarterback has that kind of athleticism, it brings an extra element to the offense that you have to prepare for.”

Georgia has done well against quarterbacks of Daniels’ ilk. They were able to keep Oregon’s Bo Nix and South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler bottled up in 49-3 and 48-7 wins early in the season. Auburn’s Robby Ashford got loose for 52 yards rushing, but the Tigers could do little else in a 42-10 loss to Georgia in October. Likewise, the Bulldogs were able to keep Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker under wraps in lopsided victories.

Georgia will be the best defense that the Tigers have faced this season. The Bulldogs come into Saturday’s game ranked No. 1 in scoring defense (11.3 ppg), No. 1 in rush defense (79.4 ypg), fourth in total defense and 22nd against the pass (191.2 ypg).

Also, despite Daniels’ mobility, LSU ranks 122nd in sacks allowed. Starting a pair of freshmen at offensive tackle in Will Campbell and Emery Jones, the Tigers have allowed 3.42 sacks a game. Generally, Georgia doesn’t prioritize sacking the quarterback in its defensive scheme – it comes in ranked 91st at 1.83 a game – but the Bulldogs picked up the pace late in the season. They recorded six sacks against Tennessee, four against Georgia Tech and 12 in the last four games.

“First of all, the scheme is outstanding,” Kelly, who also faced Georgia as Notre Dame’s head coach in 2017 and ‘19, said of Georgia’s defense. “They mix it up, three down (linemen) and four down. They do a really good job when they get you into third down; they’re going to give you a variety of looks. ... Coach Smart obviously has his hand on everything that happens in this program, but in particular on defense. You can see that.”

Likewise, Kelly has a reputation for being an offensive mastermind. Though he was considered to be at a talent disadvantage both times his Notre Dame teams met Georgia, the Bulldogs won the two games by a total of seven points.

“They’ve got these big, physical SEC players,” Smart said of Kelly at LSU. “Not that they didn’t when they were at Notre Dame. … But they’re really athletic. I mean, LSU never is going to be short on players. The state, that area, high school football is so meaningful, and they do such a good job recruiting that he’s got some really talented guys, really talented players playing.”

Count Daniels tops among those. When he’s healthy, for sure.