Final thoughts on the 2019 SEC Championship ... and a prediction
We’ve been talking about this matchup for the past month, and thank goodness it’s finally here.
Old school. New school.
Waffle House. Raising Cane’s.
If that last one doesn’t make you want to run through a wall, then I don’t know if we can be friends. And if you’re not fired up for the action in Saturday’s SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, hopefully these final thoughts (and a prediction) will wake you the heck up.
Let’s dig into it:
1. A surprising number, and some context on it
According to Vivid Seats, the secondary ticket market projects that Georgia fans will represent 69 percent of the crowd, compared to 31 percent for LSU. That’s not quite the feel of a Georgia home game, but it might be close.
I have some thoughts on that. Initially, I was thinking it would be something like 60-40. After all, LSU hasn’t been to the SEC Championship since 2011. Given how much excitement there has been about this LSU season and the desire to see Joe Burrow and this offense cook, I thought that we’d see more LSU representation even though Georgia obviously has the proximity edge.
But speaking of that proximity edge, it’s a 7 1/2-hour drive from Baton Rouge to Atlanta. That’s not a one-day trip. In other words, that’s either a flight or a long drive and a hotel. The overwhelming belief is that LSU is already in the Playoff, regardless of what happens on Saturday. Could there be LSU fans saving up for a potential semifinal or national championship? Absolutely. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.
As of Thursday morning, the cheapest SEC Championship ticket on the secondary market I saw was $185 in the nosebleeds. Add in parking, food and potential travel arrangements, and that’s easily a weekend north of $1,000 for a Louisiana couple who might be spending big bucks on a Playoff game (and Christmas shopping) in the not-so-distant future.
In other words, it makes sense that the numbers are skewed the way they are. Will that give Georgia an advantage on Saturday? Who knows.
2. If you’re taking the contrarian take on this, well …
I like Paul Myerberg’s work. I think the USA Today writer does a good job thinking through his takes, and his writing style is one that I find easy to read and informative.
But I totally disagree with his contrarian take that LSU needs to win on Saturday to make the field. Here was the quote from the exchange he had with Associated Press writer Ralph Russo on the AP Top 25 Podcast:
“That means the committee is willing to say to a group of people who represent a variety of conferences and levels of competition, ‘We believe the second-best team in the SEC without a conference championship is better than these two Power 5 conference champions, who are both 12-1.’ They’d be willing to say that?”
Um, yes. Yes, I am.
LSU could lose 50-0 and still have a vastly superior resume to Utah, which has zero wins vs. the current CFP Top 25 compared to the Tigers’ three. LSU would also trump Baylor in that department, and it would be tied with Oklahoma. But given how little respect the selection committee has given Baylor — both in terms of beating the Bears and in valuing their resume — would a second win against Baylor really show that one-loss Oklahoma deserves to make it over one-loss LSU?
I strongly disagree with that, considering that I believe LSU still has the most impressive win in the country. Against Alabama on the road when Tua Tagovailoa was healthy, the Tigers showed they were Playoff-worthy. And they also have wins against a pair of other top-12 teams with what would be a lone loss to Playoff-bound Georgia at a neutral site.
I understand that we’ve yet to see a one-loss Power 5 conference champ get left out of the Playoff for a one-loss, non-Power 5 conference champ, but this would be a first for that. And if you’re arguing that it should come down to the conference championship in a sport in which there are very few common opponents among contenders from different conferences, you’re wasting your breath.
3. The only reference I’d make to the 2018 Georgia-LSU game as it relates to this one
Did 36-16 happen last year? Yep. Will it get mentioned on the broadcast? I bet it will. Are there LSU fans who are going into Saturday with confidence because of how that game played out? Probably.
It was an absolute drubbing:
LSU and Georgia will meet in the SEC Championship on Saturday.
— SEConCBS (@SEConCBS) December 2, 2019
But I’m not using that as a barometer for a variety of reasons. Even though it’s again Joe Burrow vs. Jake Fromm, both offenses are vastly different. James Coley is calling plays for Georgia (for better or worse), and Joe Brady’s offense has ushered in a historic era of LSU football.
Besides, Georgia’s receivers are incredibly different than they were a year ago. It changes the matchup of this game, especially when you consider that LSU cornerback Derek Stingley was a first-semester senior in high school when these teams faced off last year. The circumstances are drastically different.
The only relevant context for bringing up that matchup relates to Georgia. Can Kirby Smart play up the revenge factor? He hasn’t externally, but there are plenty of guys in that locker room who remember the beatdown and subsequent field-rushing that was suffered in Death Valley last year. If Smart can play into that and get Georgia flying off the ball from the jump, that’s significant.
4. Georgia’s last shot at secondary redemption?
Speaking of redemption, an interesting and probably overlooked angle to this is Georgia’s secondary getting one more chance at that. I’m not talking about the 2018 matchup. I’m talking about the past two heartbreaks at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the season on the line.
The second-and-26 debacle doesn’t need revisiting, but don’t forget that guys like J.R. Reed, Richard LeCounte and Tyrique McGhee were there when Alabama’s Jalen Hurts came in and carved up the Georgia secondary to win last year’s SEC Championship.
Those guys can downplay it all they want, but that has to be in the back of their minds. Yes, it’s not Alabama, but each time that Georgia’s national title hopes ended the past two years, it was because of the late struggles of the Georgia secondary after it had played extremely well for most of the game.
Now, I’d argue, it faces a tougher challenge than in either of those games. This LSU offense is a different kind of historic. The confidence Burrow is playing with will test the Bulldogs for a full 60 minutes.
If Georgia walks out of Saturday with a win, we’ll be heaping praise on Smart’s secondary for getting over the hump and finishing the job in a true do-or-die matchup.
5. The thing I absolutely do NOT want to see this weekend
In my opinion, the hay is already in the barn with Burrow’s Heisman candidacy. It’s so in the barn that sportsbooks have taken odds away because of how overwhelming of a favorite he is. In most cases, I say it’s silly for voters to make their decisions before conference championships are played.
But if there was ever an exception to the rule, this is it.
The LAST thing I want to see is voters have a massive change of heart if Burrow has a less-than-stellar performance and Ohio State’s Justin Fields lights up Wisconsin. The Georgia defense is a bigger challenge than the Badgers’, and frankly, Burrow has clearly been the better player to this point. The eye test shows that.
So do the numbers:
Fields has been extraordinary this year. Has he been as dominant as Burrow? Not quite, I’d argue.
I don’t want what happened last year to repeat itself. You know, when Tagovailoa didn’t play up to the ridiculously high bar he set for himself down the stretch against elite defenses while Kyler Murray lit up bad defenses and eventually won the Heisman because of it.
This is a narrative-driven award, but in my opinion, the debate should already be over.
6. How I think Smart will attack LSU’s offense
I don’t think you beat Burrow by sending extra pressure at him. He processes things too quickly to be fazed by that. Also, the guy doesn’t shy from contact. He’ll hang in the pocket and take his licks against a free rusher if it means he’s throwing to a wide-open receiver.
To me, that strategy of bringing extra pressure would be counterproductive for Georgia. I maintain that the way to try to defend Burrow is to sag in coverage and load up the dime packages to force the ball to outside the hashes. Make someone else beat you. Try to get pressure with four pass-rushers and hope that guys like Tyler Clark and Azeez Ojulari can win their matchups and disrupt Burrow’s rhythm.
You need all the back end help possible to defend LSU. Those receivers can catch balls in traffic with ease. Smart would be, um, smart to take a page out of Kevin Steele’s playbook and make running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire try to beat them. With how well the Dawgs tackle in space, that seems like a much better strategy than say, the Todd Grantham approach.
Burrow is going to get his. He’s too accurate and too poised not to. But if he doesn’t have windows to throw into because Georgia is winning the battle up front without additional pressure, that would play right into Smart’s hand.
Easier said than done, for sure.
7. A prediction
My prediction … is that we see a really entertaining football game.
Just kidding. Can you imagine if that was all I was predicting? Like, I wasn’t aware of the obvious need to put a final score in this spot? That’d as oblivious as running a fake punt on fourth and 11 with the … I’ll stop myself. That was mean, and it was totally in the past.
So here’s a real prediction — LSU 28, Georgia 24.
That’s predicting that Georgia will cover as a touchdown underdog. Why do I believe the Dawgs will keep it close? A few reasons.
One is the belief I have in Smart’s defense. I have a feeling it will make some nice in-game adjustments and prevent LSU from running away with it after a fast start. The other is that whenever we count Fromm out, it feels like he always finds a way to storm back. I think the Burrow-Fromm battle is better than what the regular season would suggest.
Having said all of that, I’m still picking a plenty-motivated LSU team to win this game. I can’t get over the versatility and explosiveness of this Tigers offense — that’s still a stunning sentence to type out — which has essentially looked unstoppable all but once (vs. Auburn) this year. Go figure that was the one time I was there in person to witness an LSU game. If the Tigers again struggle offensively while I’m in attendance, I’ll apologize to LSU fans because clearly I’m to blame.
In all seriousness, what a fantastic matchup we’re getting. And it’s one that very few people thought we’d get a few months ago. Only six of the 260 media members had LSU winning the division in 2019. That doesn’t mean the media is dumb, because I’m sure if you polled SEC fans this offseason, it would’ve been a similar ratio.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, we’ll have a battle-tested, hungry SEC champion with all sorts of momentum heading into the Playoff.