ATHENS — No. 1 Georgia expected to be here. LSU didn’t even have the game on its radar screen. Regardless, each team has an equal shot of coming away as conference champion when the 31st annual SEC Championship is played Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4 p.m., CBS).
While the Bulldogs (12-0) continue to have their eyes on the big prize – repeating as national champions – winning the SEC title was the one box that was left unchecked on last season’s amazing run. Georgia lost to Alabama 41-24 in the SEC Championship game last December.
“We’re worried about winning an SEC championship,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said on the championship coaches teleconference call Sunday evening. “That’s the most important thing on our agenda, to have an opportunity to do something that rarely is done. It’s tough to win an SEC championship. I’ve been part of this league a long time, and I’ve been part of almost as many national championships as I do SEC championships. They’re really hard to come by.”
Georgia has won 13 SEC championships in its history, which is second only to Alabama. But the last came in 2017, when it defeated Auburn for the title. The Bulldogs are 0 for their last 3.
All the Bulldogs’ conference titles are elaborately recognized in permanent display on the walls of the team meeting room at the Butts-Mehre Building. Senior wideout Kearis Jackson recently referenced the fact that there haven’t been any new ones added in the last five years.
“We’re trying to put more numbers up on that wall,” he said in a recent interview in that room.
It’s a tricky proposition. As the No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings for the last four weeks, the Bulldogs could probably lose to the Tigers Saturday and still receive one of the four playoff berths. That’s exactly the scenario that Georgia encountered for its run to the national title last season. The loss to Alabama dropped them only to No. 3 after finishing the regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1 for the last several weeks of the season.
Smart will hear nothing of it.
“It’s the next game; for us it’s been all about the next one all year,” he said. “The great teams worry about the next one more than the last one. That’s what we’re trying to be, the team that only worries about the next one.”
That’s a good tact for both teams to take. Georgia struggled in the first half of its regular-season finale. The Bulldogs fell behind a five-win Georgia Tech team in the first quarter and led only 10-7 at halftime before rallying for a 37-14 win.
That’s better than what happened to LSU. The Tigers (9-3) lost to a five-win Texas A&M team 38-23 in College Station, Texas.
Still, in its first year under former Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, LSU wasn’t expected to play in the SEC Championship game this year.
“You know, we didn’t have a board in our team room that said SEC West championship,” Kelly said Sunday. “Our board was about a standard and getting to that standard, ... how we fought, how we prepared. Ours was much more about a process than it was for any particular goals.”
Before losing to A&M, LSU was ranked No. 5 and in position to become the first two-loss team to earn a playoff berth with a win over Georgia. Now it’s just to knock off Georgia.
And the Tigers have the team to do it. Led by transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels and a young, talented defense, they defeated all the supposed West powers to clinch the division with two weeks left in the regular season.
Smart believes the loss to the Aggies only further incentivized LSU.
“Yeah, I don’t know that the week-before result is a major factor,” he said. “You think they’d want to win any less if they had won (Saturday) night? I just don’t look at it like that. ... I think LSU is going to be ready to play us.”
This will be the fifth time Georgia and LSU have met in the SEC Championship game. The Tigers won in 2003, 2011 and 2019, and the Bulldogs captured the 2005 title with a 34-14 victory.
There’s been no shortage of big games for either team. LSU opened with Florida State. That was huge.
Georgia opened with Oregon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and has been perfect since.
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