There are plenty of things folks can say about Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs, but saying they play a soft schedule surely isn't one of them.
After already being presented with difficult tilts in the first two weeks against Clemson and South Carolina, the No. 12 Bulldogs will play their third game against a Top 10 opponent this season when they host LSU on Saturday.
Aaron Murray and Co. have navigated through the first two games of this stretch with a 1-1 record, having lost by one possession to Clemson and starting off their SEC season off right with a win over the Gamecocks.
The gauntlet won't get any easier on Saturday.
Les Miles' crew heads into Week 5 ranked No. 6 in the nation, looking like one of the best all-around Tigers teams in recent memory. Buoyed by a running game that's averaging 5.4 yards per carry and a talented defense, LSU has won each of its first four games this season by double-digit margins. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has clicked with the entire offense—particularly quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who seemingly has gone from detriment to possible NFL prospect overnight.
Frankly, this has all the makings to be Week 5's best game. These are two teams with both SEC and national championship aspirations, which are two things the Bulldogs can all but write off with a loss Saturday. One-loss SEC teams have a penchant for making the title game; two-loss squads take the risk of heading to the Capital One Bowl.
No pressure or anything, Georgia.
With that in mind, let's check in with a quick preview of this epic clash and make a prediction for which team will be able to pull it out.
When: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga.
Betting Line: Georgia -3 (Vegas Insider)
Game Preview, Prediction
To steal one of the sportswriteriest sportswriter phrases: "This ain't your grandfather's SEC."
This ain't even your father's SEC. Hell, it's barely even last season's SEC.
Where the nation's best conference was once defined by pro-style offenses and NFL-level scoring in its biggest games, there has been an increased proliferation on high-scoring outcomes thus far in 2013.
This game should be the latest evidence of this new era.
While LSU boasts another solid defense, this isn't a unit that will go up alongside Miles' best in Baton Rouge. The Tigers allowed 437 total yards last week in their 35-21 win over Auburn, with running back Tre Mason pounding out a series of solid gains on the ground. And considering the relative cupcakiness of their schedule, allowing 19.5 points per game is good, but it's not great.
Of course, much of my trepidation on hoisting plaudits on LSU's defense comes from the bevy of NFL talent on Georgia's side. Murray is one of the nation's most efficient passers, a guy who makes up for non-elite arm strength by continually making the smart decision. The senior signal-caller has completed 72 percent of his passes this season and has a whopping 12.68 yards per attempt rate.
Here's your reminder that Georgia has played probably the nation's toughest schedule thus far. Murray has been sacked just six times this season, looking comfortable behind one of the best offensive lines in college football.
It also helps to have Todd Gurley lining up behind you. Gurley, in his second season as Georgia's primary back, has made major headway in staking claim as the SEC's toughest rusher. He's averaging six yards per carry for the second-straight season, running with a power-speed combination that leaves defenses fangless. At this point, Richt may be better served by simply fazing fellow sophomore Keith Marshall out of the rotation entirely, as he's been rendered completely ineffective in two of three games.
One man who might have a thing to say about the SEC running back crown, though, is LSU's Jeremy Hill. The Tigers running back looks at Gurley's six yards per carry and chuckles heartily, as Hill is averaging over eight yards per touch. He's played with a vengeance since returning from suspension, setting a career high in yards (183) and touchdowns (three) in last week's win over Auburn.
Terrence Magee and Alfred Blue join Hill in the backfield to form one of the fiercest rushing attacks in the nation.
But it may be quarterback Zach Mettenberger who holds the cards on Saturday. The senior signal-caller (and former Georgia quarterback) has improved arguably more than any other player in the nation at his position in 2013. A year after likely costing the Tigers one or two victories, Mettenberger is averaging better than 250 yards per game through the air and has thrown 10 touchdowns against one interception.
To contrast, Mettenberger had 12 touchdown passes all of last season. He was the quintessential game manager in 2012, a guy who so rarely contributed anything other than "meh," and there was a damn near nuclear meltdown when he torched Alabama's secondary last November.
These performances don't seem like early-season flukes, either. Cameron seems to have really tapped into Mettenberger's strengths. He is showing far more poise and accuracy with his throws than at any point during his junior campaign, and arm strength was never a question with this kid. He's always had the tools to succeed; now, he's just using them now.
Looking at the matchups, there isn't all that much reason to expect a regression this week. Clemson's Tajh Boyd and South Carolina's Connor Shaw both had a ton of success against the Bulldogs secondary, and even North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson had a decent outing. Georgia's defense isn't scaring anybody.
When predicting the outcome, this game essentially comes down to which strength you prefer. If this turns out to be a defensive struggle, Georgia might as well hand out "I'm sorry" vouchers at Sanford Stadium.
My money is on a high-scoring affair, though. And with that, the battle should come down to quarterback play. The "Murray vs. Mettenberger" debate has been on fire heading into this Saturday's contest, and I can see why everyone has been so impressed with Mettenberger's progress.
I'm just not quite ready to trust him in a game of this magnitude on the road. Cam Cameron is a fine offensive coordinator, but he's not a miracle worker. Remember, this is the same guy whose firing (and subsequent replacement by Jim Caldwell, for crying out loud) ended up catapulting the Ravens to a Super Bowl win last year.
Murray over Mettenberger. Georgia over LSU.
Final Score Prediction: Georgia 35, LSU 31
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