SEC Championship Preview: LSU's Overwhelming Offense or Georgia's Dominant D?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 5, 2019

Georgia QB Jake Fromm
Georgia QB Jake FrommButch Dill/Associated Press

For the 14th consecutive year, the SEC Championship will be one of the most important games of the college football season.

From 2006 to '13, the winner of this game always went to the BCS Championship. And in each of the past five seasons, the winner secured a spot in the College Football Playoff.

After Georgia and LSU finish exchanging haymakers in Atlanta on Saturday, that streak is certain to continue. However, there may be a new wrinkle this year in which the loser still gets a chance to play for a national championship. More on that potentially infuriating scenario in a bit.

For Georgia, this marks a third consecutive trip to the SEC title game. It only took one rebuilding year (2016) for Kirby Smart to elevate this program from "usually pretty good, but not quite a title team" to "annual threat to win the national championship." Alabama and Clemson have ruled this sport with an iron fist throughout the playoff era, but the Bulldogs have been nipping at their heels.

For LSU, this ends a seven-year drought of watching either Alabama or Auburn represent the West. Though it has been a while, the Tigers have the highest SEC Championship Game winning percentage of any program. They are 4-1 dating back to 2001, including the 42-10 shellacking of Georgia in 2011, which put a bow on a 13-0 season and secured LSU's spot in the BCS Championship.

Will the Tigers polish off another undefeated campaign in blowout fashion or will Georgia flip the script and make the Tigers sweat out Selection Sunday?

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The Stakes

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron
LSU head coach Ed OrgeronThomas Graning/Associated Press

Before trying to forecast a winner in this clash of the SEC titans, we need to discuss what's at stake.

If LSU wins, the Tigers are a 100 percent stone-cold lock for either the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the College Football Playoff, and Georgia has virtually no hope of finishing in the top four. If Clemson and Utah both lose, perhaps there's a chance that two-loss Georgia finishes ahead of the 12-1 Tigers and both of the Pac-12's 11-2 teams. However, LSU, Ohio State and the one-loss Big 12 champion would definitely rank above the Bulldogs, and Clemson probably would, too.

If Georgia wins, it's likely to result in two SEC teams in the College Football Playoff for a second time in three years. Assuming the winners of the other four conference championships are Ohio State, Clemson, Utah and Oklahoma, it would be Ohio State, Clemson and Georgia in the Top Three and then a tough debate between the one-loss Pac-12 champion, the one-loss Big 12 champion and the SEC runner-up for the final spot.

It should go to LSU, though, right? Each of the Tigers' three best wins (at Alabama, vs. Florida, vs. Auburn) is arguably better than anything Oklahoma did and definitely better than any win on Utah's resume. Plus, a neutral-site loss to one-loss Georgiaprovided it's not a hideous blowoutis far more forgivable than Utah and Oklahoma each losing to teams that finished 8-4.

Winning a conference championship is important to the selection committee, but it's still only a small fraction of the entire body of work. Hard to imagine the committee will throw out everything LSU accomplished over the past three months when it's not even a clear choice whether Oklahoma or Utah would be most deserving of that final spot.

One other potential wrinkle: What happens if both Wisconsin and Georgia pull off upsets this weekend while Clemson wins the ACC Championship Game? Georgia would certainly get in, but it's feasible the Badgers could leapfrog LSU, vaulting from No. 8 to No. 4 after beating the No. 1 team. If Utah and Oklahoma also win their games, welcome to the selection committee's nightmare of trying to pick the four best resumes from a pool of seven deserving teams.

But let's just worry about this SEC game for now, shall we? 

        

Georgia Wins If...

Its defense holds up against stiffer competition.

Georgia DB Richard LeCounte
Georgia DB Richard LeCounteJohn Amis/Associated Press/Associated Press

No opponent has scored more than 17 points in regulation against the Bulldogs. They rank second nationally in points allowed (10.4) and fourth in total yards allowed (257.0). And you can forget about trying to establish the run. Opponents have averaged 2.54 yards per carry, and the lone rushing touchdown allowed was a Bo Nix QB scramble on 1st-and-goal from the 2.

But how much of that was Georgia and how much of it was the schedule?

In terms of total yards per play, the best offense Georgia had to contend with was Florida's, which tied for 24th nationally at 6.37. Moreover, the only time this front seven had to deal with a rushing attack that ranks 37th or better in yards per carry, it allowed a season-worst 160 rushing yards against quarterback-less Kentucky in a game that was played in a monsoon.

That isn't to say this defense is a paper tiger or anything, but holding the likes of Auburn, Florida and Notre Dame to 17 points doesn't necessarily mean Georgia has the antidote for Joe Burrow.

LSU is No. 2 in both yards per game (560.4) and yards per play (7.90). Georgia has held each of its 12 opponents below 350 total yards, but the Tigers have eclipsed 500 in 10 of their last 11 games and scored at least 36 points in all but one game this season. Factoring in the level of competition faced, this might be the most potent offense of the past decade.

Auburn was the only team to keep LSU from racking up touchdowns at will, but the Alabama-based Tigers didn't exactly shut down the Bayou Bengals. LSU still finished that 23-20 victory with 508 total yards. It just had four drives stall out inside the Auburn 30.

But if Georgia can also find a way to limit LSU to 23 points, Jake Fromm and Co. should be able to do enough against LSU's mediocre-at-best defense to win the SEC title.

   

LSU Wins If...

D'Andre Swift does not have a Herculean performance—if he plays at all.

Georgia RB D'Andre Swift
Georgia RB D'Andre SwiftJohn Amis/Associated Press

There were two significant developments during Georgia's 52-7 drubbing of Georgia Tech last week.

Leading receiver George Pickens (33 receptions, 498 yards, 6 TD) was ejected in the third quarter for throwing punches at Yellow Jackets DB Tre Swilling, meaning he will be unavailable for the first half of this game.

It bears mentioning that in Georgia's three biggest wins of the seasonNotre Dame, Florida and Auburn—Pickens had a combined total of two receptions for 15 yards. He's a nice asset, but he's far from integral to UGA's success. But second-leading receiver Lawrence Cager has also missed the last two games and is not expected to return this season. At the very least, he won't play in this game, so Fromm is running out of options.

The much more concerning incident for Bulldogs fans was D'Andre Swift exiting the game with a shoulder contusion.

On Monday, head coach Kirby Smart told reporters, "We're hopeful that he's going to be able to play," per Jake Rowe of 247Sports.

Maybe there's some gamesmanship going on there, or maybe Swift will be ready, willing and able to carry a full workload even if there is currently legitimate concern about his availability.

If so, let's just say LSU's defense isn't as elite as its offense.

The Tigers embarrassed Texas A&M last week, holding an opponent to seven points or fewer and less than 170 yards for the third time this season. But LSU also thrice allowed at least 37 points and at least 530 yards against Texas, Alabama and Ole Miss. Even Vanderbilt scored 38 on this defense, which has had a lot of trouble playing away from home.

While Georgia isn't sensational on offense, when operating at full capacity, it's good enough to exploit holes in an opposing defense.

If Swift isn't able to fire on all cylinders, though, neither will Georgia's offense. And a B+ version of Georgia's offense isn't going to cut the mustard against an LSU team averaging 52.5 points over its last four games.

Swift has accounted for 1,401 yards from scrimmage this season, more than 2.5 times the total of his next-closest teammate. Though he did not once find the end zone in five November games, he's the reason this offense still has a playoff pulse. He accumulated more than 40 percent of the Dawgs' total yards in the 21-14 win over Auburn, and then got more than 50 percent of their yards the following week in a 19-13 victory over Texas A&M.

While there are several other backs on this roster more than capable of running behind Georgia's elite offensive line, Brian Herrien, Zamir White and James Cook just don't pack the same punch as Swift.

Even if Swift is a full go for 25 or more touches, it's going to be difficult to remain within striking distance of LSU. Without him, it would become virtually impossible.

   

The Prediction: LSU 35, Georgia 26

LSU QB Joe Burrow
LSU QB Joe BurrowGerald Herbert/Associated Press

If LSU had a run-first offense, it would be much more tempting to believe Georgia's defense could win this thing. That front seven has been a brick wall all year.

However, far less noteworthy quarterbacks than Joe Burrow have fared rather well against the Bulldogs secondary.

Back in early October, Tennessee's Brian Maurer got an unexpected start and threw for two touchdowns and more than 250 yards, followed one week later by South Carolina's backup and third-string quarterbacks playing a turnover-free game en route to one of the biggest upsets of the season. Notre Dame's Ian Book and Texas A&M's Kellen Mond both put up exactly 275 yards in the process of nearly knocking off Georgia.

Burrow will do that and then some, pacing LSU to its 13th victory by continuing his season-long streak of completing better than 70 percent of his pass attempts while accounting for multiple touchdowns.

Now, if history from one year ago repeats itself and the Georgia defense suffocates the prohibitive Heisman favorite before destroying his ankle, LSU doesn't exactly have a Jalen Hurts waiting in the wings to don a Superman cape. Georgia would become the clear favorite if Myles Brennan is forced into action.

But short of a fluke injury to a quarterback whobetween last year's bowl game against UCF and last month's game against Auburnhas demonstrated an ability to absorb a bone-crushing hit and somehow play even better after it, Georgia falls just short of the playoff for a second consecutive year.

        

Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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