SDS' Ultimate SEC Championship Preview: Sizing up Georgia-LSU, and why the expanded Playoff can't get here soon enough
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s collision between LSU and Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
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Saturday will mark the 31st running of the SEC Championship Game, and arguably the most anticlimactic. Has any previous edition felt like it mattered less?
Yes, I know, this is supposed to be the hype section, where I play up the magnitude of the event and the suspense of the game itself, not give you an excuse to spend a Saturday afternoon doing something more productive. If you’re reading this, though, I think we can safely say there’s no chance of that. So let’s tell it like it is: The Bulldogs are almost certainly going to win, and in the grand scheme of things nothing will change if they don’t. Georgia is a 17.5-point favorite, one of the largest point spreads in the history of the SEC title game, and one that reflects the fact that the Dogs have put so much distance between themselves and all but 1 or 2 other teams in the country that they’re effectively guaranteed a slot in the College Football Playoff, win or lose, for the 2nd year in a row.
LSU, meanwhile, has no path to the CFP and, as of last weekend, no momentum. Afterthoughts at midseason, the Tigers managed to claw their way back into the national race over the course of a 5-game winning streak that secured the SEC West crown in Brian Kelly’s 1st season, only to collapse in a heap in a decisive loss at Texas A&M. For an outfit projected to finish 5th in the division in the preseason, just getting to Atlanta exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations. It may have also used up everything in their tank.
Now, there are plenty of examples over the years of lopsided SEC Championship matchups where 1 side is both clearly the better team and has significantly more at stake in terms of advancing to play for a national title. (For the last SECCG with no broader national implications, you have to go all the way back to the 2005 meeting between, coincidentally, Georgia and LSU.) Saturday’s game isn’t as big a mismatch as, say, the 2016 edition between Alabama and Florida, where undefeated Bama arrived as a 24-point favorite and won by 38. In virtually all of those cases, though, higher stakes meant the big favorite actually had to win to advance. Georgia defied that assumption last year, when it became the 1st team ever to survive a loss in Atlanta (a big loss, at that) and still go on to play for a national championship. But that game was as meaningful as ever for Alabama, which had to win to secure its CFP ticket and had to have a Heisman-clinching performance from its star quarterback to pull it off.
This time around, LSU is not even in a position to play spoiler. The Tigers can silence the doubters, shock the world and win the day. Come Sunday morning, it will still be Georgia booking its trip to the semifinal.
Skeptics of Playoff expansion (now officially approved for the 2024 season) like to argue that expanding the field from 4 teams to 12 will water down the regular season by lowering the cost of any given loss, or even 2. In fact, the more likely result is more meaningful games with Playoff implications. With automatic bids for conference champions, every game this weekend would take on greater significance: LSU would be playing for an auto bid, as would Utah in the Pac-12, Kansas State in the Big 12, Purdue in the Big Ten and the respective winners of championship games in the ACC and the American, all of whom have already been eliminated under the current format. Georgia, Michigan and TCU, all of whom have apparently secured their places and therefore have relatively little at stake this weekend, would have incentives in a 12-team format to play for 1 of the 4 1st-round byes reserved for conference champs. Winning your conference, and not winning your conference, would carry specific, tangible rewards and consequences.
The same cannot be said at the moment, on a championship weekend when only 1 team is clearly playing for its Playoff life: No. 4 USC, which is looking to redeem its only regular-season loss against Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game. (Even there, it’s not completely out of the question that the committee will decline to punish the Trojans for losing a 13th game that neither Ohio State nor Alabama earned the right to play.) There’s still something to be said for the traditional, intrinsic value of a conference championship as its own reward, regardless of the wider context. The very concept of a conference championship game, pioneered by the SEC before the Playoff was so much as a distant glimmer on the horizon, was always intended to honor and elevate that value. It’s about time the sport had a national championship structure that does, too.
When LSU has the ball
1. What’s up with Jayden Daniels’ ankle?
Kelly cut through the suspense on Thursday, confirming that Daniels will play after he briefly left last week’s loss at Texas A&M with a sprained ankle early in the 4th quarter. He yielded to backup Garrett Nussmeier for 1 play, returned after a change of possession, finished the game and “had a good week of practice,” according to Kelly. There was some speculation earlier in the week that Daniels’ status might be in doubt, but at this point all signs out of Baton Rouge suggest the light is green.
Does that mean he’s 100 percent, or close enough to sustain his usual production as a runner? We’ll see. Daniels’ mobility has been so central to the offense that it’s unclear how it would function if he’s not. He’s the only quarterback nationally with more than 1,000 yards rushing this season (excluding sacks), with his 1,003 more than doubling the output of any LSU running back. He ranks among the top 6 rushers in the SEC at any position in yards per carry (7.2), rushing touchdowns (11) and missed tackles forced (51), per Pro Football Focus, and he leads the conference in runs of 10-plus yards. Daniels is not a breakaway threat, but he’s slippery in the pocket — nearly two-thirds of his rushing yards come via scrambles — and when the Tigers break out the read-option package at close range, he has a reliable nose for the end zone.
What a move by Jayden Daniels ?
— SEC on CBS ? (@SEConCBS) October 22, 2022
Adding to the uncertainty on the ground, the 1st among equals in the RB rotation, Josh Williams, is also coming off a knee injury that has sidelined him the past 2 weeks. Kelly was optimistic that Williams, who averaged 89.5 yards per game on 6.3 per carry in his last 4 games prior to the injury, will be back to his usual self on Saturday, for what it’s worth. Against Georgia’s defense, back in its familiar position atop the national rankings against the run, that usually isn’t very much. LSU’s fate in the running game is riding on Daniels’ creativity, however much of it he can muster.
2. Does LSU’s O-line stand a chance?
Another red flag where any limit on Daniels’ mobility is concerned: He has been sacked 42 times, more than any Power 5 quarterback. The rebuilt offensive line was a major concern coming into the season, and at certain positions those concerns have been borne out. The bright spot up front has been true freshman left tackle Will Campbell, who has had his growing pains but has broadly held his own and has the makings of an entrenched starter on that side for as long as he’s on campus. His counterpart on the right side, fellow freshman Emery Jones Jr., has not fared as well, giving up 5 sacks and an alarming 31 QB pressures, per PFF. The veteran starters at the interior positions have all allowed a dozen pressures and at least 3 sacks apiece.
Georgia, surprisingly, is not a high-volume sack team; its leader in that category, 5-star freshman Mykel Williams, has just 4 on the season from the strongside end position occupied last year by Travon Walker. The Bulldogs’ best edge rusher, senior Nolan Smith, is out for the season with a torn pec muscle, but he wasn’t exactly lighting up the stat sheet before the injury. The real strength of the pass rush is the capacity to bring heat from anywhere at any time. Even when they don’t get home, Williams and OLB Robert Beal Jr. (Smith’s replacement) are consistent disruptors off the edge; Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Javon Bullard are plus blitzers from their inside linebacker and nickel roles, respectively; and, oh yeah, DT Jalen Carter is the single most unblockable interior defender in the college game.
Jalen Carter one on one isn't fair! pic.twitter.com/T3khnjnQ4f
— ?????? @???????? (@FTBeard7) November 13, 2022
Carter missed all or most of the first 8 games with a lingering knee injury, but since his Week 9 return against Florida, he has lived up to his dominant reputation, generating 12 pressures and 6 tackles for loss in the past 4 games, including 2 sacks. In the Dogs’ season-defining win over Tennessee, he set the tone with a monster strip sack in the 1st quarter, then put the game on ice by forcing a 2nd fumble in the 4th. If he hadn’t sprained his knee on literally the 1st snap of the season against Oregon, Carter might be a darkhorse Heisman candidate representing the dominant unit on the nation’s dominant team. As it stands, even a half-season’s worth of overpowering opposing linemen is more than enough to make him one of the most coveted prospects in next year’s NFL Draft. If LSU leaves it to either of its shaky guards to handle him 1-on-1, Daniels’ ankle isn’t going to be the only thing hurting at the end of the day.
3. Is Kayshon Boutte a factor?
Boutte has been a consistent presence in the offense, ranking 2nd on the team in catches (42) and yards (431) behind sophomore Malik Nabers. But at no point has he resembled his old, electric self prior to the ankle injury that ended his 2021 season. In his last 9 games before the injury (the first 6 of 2021 and the final 3 of 2020), Boutte was a big-play machine, accounting for 1,035 yards and 13 touchdowns on 15.9 per catch. In 10 games this year, he has scored just once while averaging 10.3 yards per catch, working mainly as a possession receiver out of the slot. He has more drops (7) than receptions of 20-plus yards (6).
If he’s not right physically, he hasn’t let on. And if any traces of his former magic still exist, Saturday would be an opportune time to summon them in what may be Boutte’s last game in an LSU uniform. Before the season, the prospect of Boutte lining up across from Georgia CB Kelee Ringo, another 5-star from the 2020 recruiting class bound for the 1st round, would have been a scout’s dream. Now that the time has come, Boutte has dropped into the Day 2 range in mock drafts, and his slot role means he’ll rarely be matched up against Ringo in coverage, anyway. The Tigers have no shortage of viable targets at wideout, but none of them has the kind of juice Boutte has at his best. They should give him every opportunity to get in 1 last good squeeze before he moves on.
When Georgia has the ball
1. Can Georgia throw deep?
Maybe a better question would be, does Georgia need to throw deep? Stetson Bennett IV converted most of his skeptics during last year’s national championship run, yours truly included, and has looked like anything but an underdog as a 6th-year senior. Still, if you’re looking for a glitch in Georgia’s resume heading into the postseason, the downfield passing game remains the most obvious place to start. Bennett is just 1-of-7 on attempts of 10-plus yards beyond the line of scrimmage the past 2 weeks, per PFF, the 1 coming late in Saturday’s 37-14 win over Georgia Tech on a wheel route to RB Kenny McIntosh:
The play that set up the score.
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) November 26, 2022
Not to read too much into a couple of conservative outings in games where the top priority was getting out with everyone’s ACLs intact. But in addition to Bennett’s limitations, the absence of a reliable vertical threat is the Dogs’ 1 glaring personnel issue. That role was supposed to be manned by either by junior Arian Smith, who has averaged 35.3 yards with 3 touchdowns on just 7 career receptions, or sophomore AD Mitchell, who was on the receiving end of the 40-yard touchdown pass that put Georgia on top for good in January’s CFP Championship win over Alabama. Instead, Smith has been a nonfactor, while Mitchell has been sidelined since the season opener with a lingering ankle injury, leaving a void that has not been filled. Bennett’s favorite target, Ladd McConkey, has nearly as many drops on attempts of 20-plus yards downfield (4) as catches (5), per PFF; no one else has been targeted downfield more than 6 times. Barring a timely return by Mitchell, generating big plays is likely to continue to hinge on Bennett and offensive coordinator Todd Monken manufacturing YAC opportunities for the backs and tight ends.
2. Can LSU get off the field?
What the Bulldogs lack in explosiveness, they more than make up for in efficiency, especially on 3rd downs. UGA is converting 52.6 percent of its 3rd-down opportunities against FBS opponents, the best rate in the SEC, and has converted better than 40 percent in every game but 1: A Week 5 trip to Missouri, where the Dogs were just 4-of-13 in their only close call of the season. Bennett has been particularly sharp on 3rd-and-medium, converting an impressive 27 of 43 attempts (62.8 percent) with between 4 and 9 yards to go. Factor in their ridiculous 84.6 percent success rate on 4th down — 2nd nationally only to Michigan — and it becomes very clear why they’re also leading the league in time of possession. Stops are hard to come by.
On the other side, LSU’s 3rd-down defense has ranged from fierce to forgettable, typically landing somewhere in between. Last week’s loss in College Station was the nadir. Texas A&M was 10-of-15 on 3rd-down conversions, roughly twice its season average, and 2-of-2 on 4th down, most of them coming on extended scoring drives covering 90, 58, 72, 83 and 77 yards, respectively. Each of those drives consisted of at least 8 plays and averaged just shy of 5 minutes. Georgia rarely passes up an opportunity to shorten the game to 15 or 16 total possessions if it can, and the shorter the Bulldogs can make it in that regard, the longer it’s going to feel for the Tigers.
3. How big a problem is Harold Perkins Jr.?
Perkins was one of Kelly’s first big recruiting wins at LSU, flipping his commitment from Texas A&M a week before Signing Day to become the only 5-star signee in the Tigers’ 2022 class. By midseason, he was earning full-time reps at multiple positions. By November, he was arguably the best player on the team.
At the very least, he’s certainly the one generating the most excitement. In Week 3, Perkins left a mark in his first SEC game, finishing with 5 QB pressures and 2 sacks off the bench against Mississippi State. In his 1st start, he generated 4 pressures against Florida on just 9 pass-rushing snaps. He followed that up after LSU’s open date with 6 pressures against Ole Miss and 7 against Alabama, including a sack in each game. His prime-time harassment of Bryce Young on one of the longest nights of Young’s career felt like a breakthrough, and his “flu game” performance at Arkansas the following week felt like the arrival of a major star: With the offense struggling, Perkins registered 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 1 eye-opening feat of athleticism after another against the Razorbacks, including the game-winning, division-clinching strip at the expense of an O-lineman who outweighs him by approximately 130 pounds.
Harold Perkins. Again.
? ESPN pic.twitter.com/0KZbc9ihfT
— LSU Football (@LSUfootball) November 12, 2022
The really scary part of his rapid emergence was how much room Perkins clearly had to grow beyond the “my god, a freshman” phase, and in that sense the Texas A&M game was a reality check — he didn’t lay a hand on Aggies QB Conner Weigman and came in for his worst PFF grades of the season in almost every column it tracks. Obviously, Georgia’s offensive line is a much bigger challenge than Texas A&M’s, or any other on LSU’s schedule. Bennett has faced pressure on just 17.9 percent of his dropbacks, the lowest rate of any Power 5 quarterback. But between Perkins, fellow edge BJ Ojulari and interior pocket collapsers Jaquelin Roy and Mekhi Wingo, the D-line generally and the pass rush specifically may be the Tigers’ biggest strength. (Let’s name-check future pro Ali Gaye, as well, although his productivity in is his last college season has significantly declined.) If an upset is in the cards, it’s hard to imagine without their most gifted young game-wrecker playing a leading role.
Special teams, injuries and other vagaries
In a close game, Georgia kicker Jack Podlesny is a proven commodity. As a senior, he has been one of the most reliable short-range kickers in the country, connecting on 21 of 21 attempts from 40 yards and in. Beyond 40, the resume gets a little dicier: He’s just 2-of-4 on the season and 12-of-20 for his career. Podlesny’s counterpart, LSU’s Damian Ramos, is still introducing himself. He has attempted just 12 kicks in his 1st year on the job and just 2 from 40-plus yards, but he hit his longest attempt, a 47-yarder that iced the Tigers’ win at Florida.
Elsewhere, both teams have endured random glitches in the kicking game. LSU’s first 2 losses both involved special teams gaffes: The Tigers muffed 2 punts in their season opener against Florida State, and they memorably lost on a blocked PAT that would have sent the game to overtime; a few weeks later, they spotted Tennessee 10 quick points by fumbling away the opening kickoff and allowing a 58-yard punt return following their 1st possession on offense. As for Georgia, although punter Brett Thorson has allowed only 5 returns all season, 1 of them was a 63-yard touchdown at Mississippi State that (briefly) breathed life into MSU’s upset bid going into halftime. Neither side has popped a big return of its own, although Georgia’s Kearis Jackson does have a couple earlier in his career.
Health-wise, LSU’s game plan on offense could change dramatically depending on the status of Daniels’ ankle and Williams’ knee, as discussed above. On defense, the biggest variable is cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse, who sat out the A&M loss with a concussion and was sorely missed. In his absence, LSU moved nickel safety Jay Ward to cornerback and redshirt freshman Sage Ryan to nickel, where he was beat on a couple of spectacular 1-handed catches by the Aggies’ Moose Muhammad III, 1 of them for a touchdown. Bernard-Converse, a former 1st-team All-Big 12 pick at Oklahoma State, quietly emerged during the winning streak as LSU’s best cover man; he locked down a full-time role at midseason and played a big part in the win over Alabama, picking off Bryce Young in the end zone while allowing just 2 receptions (for 13 yards) on 7 targets. He’s another guy in the “optimistic” column after clearing concussion protocol, according to Kelly, but how much he’ll play remains TBD.
For Georgia, the only notable question mark surrounds Mitchell, who has played a grand total of 5 snaps since the season opener, most recently in Week 6 against Auburn. Mitchell was in uniform last week against Georgia Tech, and actually got on the field, only to come right back off when the subsequent play was waved off by a pre-snap penalty. Reports out of Athens suggest he has been practicing and will be available, if coaches are so inclined. Last year, they faced a similar situation with George Pickens, who missed essentially the entire regular season recovering from a torn ACL only to reemerge in the SEC Championship Game with a 37-yard catch that set up the Bulldogs’ 1st touchdown against Alabama. (Later, Pickens also burned the Tide for a 52-yard gain in the CFP Championship Game.) Mitchell is no Pickens — at least, not yet — but he is the Bulldogs’ most likely candidate to stretch the field vertically, which makes his presence of keen interest on Saturday and beyond.
LSU was going to be a massive underdog in Atlanta in any case, but getting blown off the tracks by a lame-duck, last-place A&M outfit with nothing to play for cast the Tigers’ run through the SEC West in a much dimmer light. Is it possible that the sport’s deepest, most revered division just wasn’t that good? LSU won it with a pedestrian +16 scoring margin in conference play, and that’s including a 25-point win over Ole Miss. The only other West team that finished in the black was Alabama, which played 5 games (including an overtime loss at LSU) decided in the final minute. The West collectively posted a rare losing record (6-8) vs. the East in cross-division play. The margin between a banner year and mediocrity was flimsy.
In the end, the notion that the SEC could have conceivably placed multiple teams in the Playoff seems laughable. Bama was not quite itself, and the darkhorses, Tennessee and LSU, both blew their big shot in ghastly fashion. Only 1 team showed up week-in, week-out, with a bare minimum of drama and no room for doubt: Georgia. The Bulldogs are so ubiquitously talented and steady that, like the old, defensively-driven Crimson Tide teams Kirby Smart was hired to emulate, it’s easy to take them for granted. Frankly, it’s a little boring. More than a little, sometimes. For example, I’m beginning to wonder how many years Kirby can go and how many championships he can win without producing a single plausible Heisman candidate.
Anyway, the upstarts were interesting. The season would have been deathly dull without them. Moments like Tennessee’s cathartic triumph over Bama and Perkins emblazoning his name in the national consciousness in real time are what make fall Saturdays the joy that they are. And then, waiting at the end, there’s Georgia. The immovable object. The Dogs haven’t budged an inch from where they started, while whatever force LSU might have felt at its back a week ago has come to a dead stop.
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• Georgia 34 | LSU 13
Week 13 Record: 4–5 straight-up | 4–5 vs. spread
Season Record: 73–24 straight-up | 44–51 vs. spread