First and 10: Why LSU absolutely can beat Georgia in SEC Championship
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
We’re 2 weeks from the completion of the greatest single-season coaching job in the modern era of college football.
And it’s not really close.
Better than Alabama’s COVID season in 2020, or Ohio State’s 2014 national championship season with 3 quarterbacks. Or the collection and execution of talent at USC in 2004, and Miami in 2001.
None of them compare to the season Brian Kelly is on the verge of nailing down over the next 2 weeks. From a gutted roster and program before he arrived in December of 2021, to winning the best conference in college football and advancing to the Playoff.
All in about 11 months.
“It’s been a process for us that got better and better as we were consistent and built trust with the team,” Kelly said Saturday after a win over UAB. “It doesn’t happen overnight.”
But it has happened quicker than anyone could have imagined — and more to the point, in a way so rare, there are few comparisons.
If you don’t think LSU can beat Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, you haven’t been watching how motivated/overlooked teams respond in big games this season. The month of November has been pure chaos.
Notre Dame over Clemson, LSU over Alabama, Washington over Oregon, Michigan and Ohio State pushed to the final minute last week, and TCU needing a last-second fire drill field goal to beat Baylor.
Even Georgia, after hearing for 3 weeks that it couldn’t stop Tennessee’s Blur Ball offense, played its most complete game over the past 2 seasons and clamped down on the Vols.
You don’t think LSU — which heard throughout the summer that its coach was fake and the team was full of overrated talent — is just a smidge motivated by everyone penciling in Georgia as the No. 1 seed in the Playoff?
You’ve heard the narrative — no one is beating Georgia, and the Dawgs will do the same thing to LSU that they did to Tennessee’s magical season.
Georgia will be the first team to repeat as national champions since Alabama in 2011-12 — and will do so because coach Kirby Smart took a team that lost 15 players to the NFL Draft and 13 more to the transfer portal, and still rolled through the best conference in college football.
Easy, right? Maybe not.
The LSU from the first month of the season is nothing like the team that has won 5 straight (including wins over No. 6 Alabama and No. 7 Ole Miss) by an average margin of victory of 14.
They’re top 25 in scoring defense (20 ppg.), and have a quarterback (Jayden Daniels) who has 16 total TDs and only 1 INT in the 5-game streak.
Their best players are playing at peak level, they get better as a team every week and play with something to prove every series.
We’re 2 weeks from the improbable and unthinkable happening, from Kelly completing the greatest single season coaching job of the modern era.
Don’t say you weren’t warned.
2. The build-out
When Kelly first met his team last December, he asked them for one thing: trust.
The players looking back at him went through 2 years of turmoil after the national championship season of 2019. They had a choice: trust, or push back.
The COVID season was brutal on its own, much less the fall-off from a season for the ages. In the less than 24 months since Ed Orgeron became the 3rd coach to win a national title at LSU since 2003, the program had deteriorated to disturbing lows on and off the field.
By the end of the 2021 season, Orgeron’s girlfriend was running around the practice field and freshman QB Garrett Nussmeier refused to play in the bowl game to save a redshirt season — leaving WR Jantre Kirkland running the offense in a blowout loss to Kansas State.
Then Kelly got hired, and the first 2 weeks on the job looked like this:
— The team in front of Kelly at his first meeting had played with 39 scholarship players against Kansas State.
— Kelly walked out of that meeting, where he asked for the team’s trust, knowing he had about 2 weeks to land a recruiting class that would be critical to his assimilation to the best conference in college football.
— He had to hire a coaching staff and a support staff, and get to as many high schools in Louisiana as he could, in person or by phone.
— He was recruiting against Nick Saban and Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher, and doing everything he could to keep his current depleted roster from further deteriorating with defections to the transfer portal — while simultaneously scouring the portal for players of impact.
— He lost freshman All-American cornerback Eli Ricks to the portal, a starting quarterback (Max Johnson), a starting wideout (Trey Palmer), and an edge rusher (Landon Jackson).
Kelly then went out and landed the No. 12 recruiting class in the nation, and 4 players from that class have been major contributors as starters: OTs Will Campbell and Emery Jones, LB Harold Perkins and TE Mason Taylor.
The transfer portal added 6 more starters and double-digit contributors, and a team that was left for dead after last season had the makings of something unique if everyone pulled the same way.
After 6 weeks and 2 bad losses to FSU and Tennessee, the chemistry began to connect and everyone began to believe — and LSU suddenly became a dangerous team with a hot quarterback.
“My first meeting I said, ‘You’re going to have to trust me, and it’s not going to happen today,'” Kelly said. “It’s going to happen over my words and deeds. I’m going to have to back it up. My actions will help you trust me.”
If LSU beats Texas A&M Saturday in College Station, it will have earned only the 2nd 10-win regular season for the program since 2012.
3. The great turnaround, the epilogue
If you can’t wrap your mind around LSU beating Georgia in the SEC Championship Game — and sending the Playoff selection committee into a scramble drill before selection day Sunday — you haven’t been watching what’s building in Baton Rouge.
LSU can beat Georgia.
As sure as Georgia looks unbeatable and LSU is hitting its stride, the Tigers can win the SEC Championship Game and force the Playoff selection committee to put 2 SEC teams in the 4-team tournament.
Tennessee’s loss to South Carolina last weekend — the Vols may not be finished losing with star QB Hendon Hooker out for the rest of the season — all but assured LSU a spot in the Playoff should it beat Georgia.
This exact scenario is why the Playoff selection committee was made, why the BCS was scrapped. The selection committee, in theory, can see past wins and losses and find the 4 best teams.
In other words, the eye test + prisoner of the moment = 4 Playoff teams. If LSU beats Texas A&M and Georgia, it will have won 7 straight, including wins over top-10 Alabama and Ole Miss and No. 1 Georgia.
That’s eye test/prisoner of the moment > early losses to FSU and Tennessee.
First, any combination of TCU and USC losses likely ensures both LSU and Georgia are in the Playoff if LSU wins the SEC.
But let’s say unbeaten TCU wins out, and once-beaten USC wins out. That leaves 5 teams for 4 spots: an Ohio State or Michigan Big Ten champion, Georgia (1-loss SEC runner-up), TCU, USC and LSU.
The argument then becomes 2-loss SEC champion LSU vs. 1-loss Pac-12 champion USC.
Who do you think wins that argument?
That leaves these 4 Playoff teams: No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 LSU (Fiesta Bowl), and No.2/3 Georgia vs. No.2/3 TCU (Peach Bowl).
4. The SEC is still big
Kirby Smart talked this summer about not winning the SEC last season, and how important it is to win the SEC.
In other words, the loss to Alabama in last year’s SEC Championship Game is still an issue.
“Any time you lose, it’s a problem, you’re not happy,” Smart told me in July. “But think about it, we’re talking about the SEC Championship. I can’t imagine in any scenario where that’s not a very important deal. I can promise you, any time we’re fortunate enough to play in that game, we’re doing everything in our power to win that game. That’s a championship, that’s in the record books. You get a ring for that.”
Translation: Don’t expect Georgia to stroll into Atlanta — with or without a stamped pass to the Playoff — and not try to win the SEC.
Georgia was No. 1 in last year’s SEC Championship Game, lost to No. 3 Alabama and dropped to No. 3 in the final Playoff ranking. Georgia had nothing to gain, and Alabama had everything to lose.
Fast forward to this season: Georgia, again, has nothing to gain and LSU has everything to lose. That doesn’t mean an SEC Championship wouldn’t be (or isn’t) important to Georgia, it just means the Dawgs could still play for a national title (the big prize) if they lose to LSU.
Will a team that has turned it on (Oregon, Florida, Tennessee) and off (Missouri, Kentucky) all season, be motivated knowing they’re in the Playoff no matter what?
Smart says it’s important and has been able to push all the right buttons with this team at the right time. But can they turn it on against a hot opponent that needs the game to reach the Playoff?
5. The Weekly 5
Picks against the spread — the special, expanded Rivalry Week Edition — brought to you by FanDuel:
- Mississippi State at Ole Miss (-3.5)
- Arkansas at Missouri (+4.5)
- Florida at Florida State (-8.5)
- Georgia Tech at Georgia (-35.5)
- South Carolina (+14.5) at Clemson
- Louisville at Kentucky (-3.5)
- Auburn (+21.5) at Alabama
- LSU (-9.5) at Texas A&M
- Tennessee at Vanderbilt (+15.5)
Last week: 2-3
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama CB Eli Ricks.
“There’s a lot going on (at Alabama) right now, especially with Ricks. Why he played, why he didn’t play. All I know is when he plays, he’s the best cover guy they have. He’s a really explosive guy out there, both out of the backpedal and into run support. He turns and runs as well as anyone, and is a physical guy.
“He’s really confident in his skills — maybe too confident. He can give up some big plays. But with ball skills like he has, that doesn’t bother me as much. If he comes out, and I can’t imagine after whatever happened this season he won’t come out, he could easily be a late Day 1 pick. He has Day 1 skills.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: updated bowl projections.
1. Georgia: Peach Bowl national semifinal vs. USC. The best defense in college football vs. the most exciting quarterback (Caleb Williams).
2. LSU: Sugar Bowl vs. Kansas State. Payback time for the Tigers, who were humiliated by K-State in last year’s bowl season.
3. Alabama: Orange Bowl vs. Clemson. After all of those Playoff games, they meet in a New Year’s 6 game.
4. Tennessee: Citrus Bowl vs. Iowa. A gut-punch of a consolation bowl for the Vols, who aren’t the same team with Joe Milton at QB.
5. Ole Miss: ReliaQuest Bowl vs. Wisconsin. Rebels can run the ball as well as anyone. Badgers have one of the nation’s top run defenses.
6. Mississippi State: Texas Bowl vs. Oklahoma. Future SEC rivals, and big spot for Bulldogs to earn some credibility in the state of Texas recruiting.
7. Arkansas: Gator Bowl vs. Notre Dame. Florida’s loss to Vanderbilt moves the Hogs into a marquee game against the Irish.
8. Kentucky: Music City vs. Illinois: Mirror images. Stout defenses, strong run games, struggling pass games.
9. Florida: Las Vegas Bowl vs. UCLA. The thought of dynamic QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson vs. the Gators D is frightening.
10. South Carolina: Liberty Bowl vs. Baylor. If Gamecocks can upset Clemson, they’ll move all the way to the ReliaQuest Bowl.
11. Missouri: If Tigers can beat Arkansas, the Birmingham Bowl vs. ECU is a likely landing spot.
12. Vanderbilt: Win over Tennessee (with Milton playing, it’s not out of the question), and it’s Gasparilla Bowl vs. Duke. A breakthrough season for coach Clark Lea.
13. Auburn: Beat Alabama, and it’s more than just the Cure Bowl vs. Marshall, it likely means Cadillac Williams is the next Auburn coach.
14. Texas A&M: Aggies aren’t bowl-eligible.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: You’re Jimbo Fisher, who are you hiring as offensive coordinator? — Craig Dobson, Dallas.
We’re clearly at the point where Fisher — after a likely 4-8 season and knowing he has talent at quarterback with freshman Conner Weigman — almost has to hire an offensive coordinator/QBs coach.
And if it’s going to happen, he has to be a guy who can take the stress of a micromanaging head coach. The first guy I would look at is Toledo head coach Jason Candle, who has done fantastic work for years with Rockets, both as OC and head coach (and at NCAA lower division power Mount Union).
Washington OC Ryan Grubb, who has developed Michael Penix in one season (and did impressive work at Fresno State prior to that) would be a smart hire, too — even though he (like Candle) has no SEC experience.
Another option is to raid Ole Miss again. Fisher got defensive coordinator DJ Durkin from the Rebels after last season, and could take a run at Charlie Weis Jr. from Ole Miss this time. Weis is highly-regarded within the coaching community, has NFL experience and might be available if Lane Kiffin takes another job.
Other possibilities: Wake Forest OC Warren Ruggiero and Tennessee OC Alex Golesh.
117. The phenomenal freshman season of Ole Miss TB Quinshon Judkins has hit the SEC record stage. A significant record, that is.
Judkins needs to average 117 yards a game over the final 2 games of the season (Egg Bowl vs. Mississippi State, and the bowl game) to break Herschel Walker’s true freshman rushing record of 1,616 yards.
It’s one of the most hallowed records in SEC history because of Walker’s historic career, and because it occurred during Georgia’s national championship season of 1980.
The big difference: Walker rushed for 1,616 yards in 11 games (bowl games didn’t count toward statistics then); Judkins will have done it in 13.
10. Quote to note
South Carolina coach Shane Beamer on QB Opener Rattler’s program-record 6-TD performance against Tennessee: “Oh my God. He was on. You talk about players being in the zone. That guy was in the zone.”