By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
ORLANDO, Fla. – Over the last decade, LSU and Georgia have been among the Southeastern Conference’s premier football programs. Neither team is a stranger to big-game situations, which will be in effect this weekend when the No. 6 Tigers face-off with the ninth-ranked Bulldogs in Athens on Saturday afternoon.
Since 2000, when Mark Richt took the reins in Athens, UGA has appeared in five SEC Championship Games, winning two. Les Miles has taken LSU to Atlanta four times since his arrival to Baton Rouge in 2003, winning three of those games.
In fact, two of the last five meetings between the schools have come in the conference title game, so high stakes showdowns between the Dawgs and the Tigers are more the norm than the exception in the series’ recent history.
“It’s without question a huge game for us and a huge game for LSU,” Richt told the media on Tuesday. “We have an awful lot of respect for LSU, even more respect after watching them on TV last Saturday night. They look as good as ever.”
For Georgia, which opened the season with back-to-back top-10 opponents, the Tigers present another challenge against a highly ranked team. The 2013 season is still in its early stages, but the Bulldogs (2-1, 1-0 SEC) are already battle tested as they welcome LSU to Sanford Stadium. The Dawgs took a jab at Clemson in a 38-35 season opening loss, but responded with a victory the following week over South Carolina in another high-scoring affair, 41-30.
With both teams scoring upwards of 40 points per game, Saturday’s date with LSU has the makings of another offensive shootout.
The Tigers (4-0), who have put up over 400 yards of offense in their first four games for the first time in school history, are rolling behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger and a powerful rushing attack. The Georgia defense, which has struggled to this point in the season, will be met by a stable of running backs that have the Tigers averaging over 200 yards per game on the ground on 5.4 yards per carry. The ground game coupled with the effectiveness of new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s vertical passing attack – Mettenberger has thrown 10 touchdowns with an 11-yard per pass clip – has LSU’s offense looking as good as it has in years.
“Zach has gotten better and better every year,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said of his counterpart this weekend. “They’re very similar to us offensively in that they’re able to pound, pound, pound, get up there, throw the ball, move it through the air with some great receivers as well, so it’s going to be a huge challenge for us defensively.”
Murray, Todd Gurley and the Bulldogs will face the toughest defense they have seen so far in 2013. LSU ranks third in the conference in yards per play surrendered, but the Tigers have not seen anything close to the animal they’ll have to contain on Saturday in Georgia’s offense.
UGA is currently rolling up 7.8 yards per play and over 570 yards per game. Gurley represents one of college football’s best running backs (126 yards per game on six yards per carry), but the Tigers will not be able to simply stack the box to stop the run due to the proficiency of Murray, one of the SEC’s all-time leading passers. Miles knows that his defense must be sound in every facet, because the Tigers aren’t likely to startle a quarterback with 44 career starts.
“I don't think you rattle a guy like that,” Miles said of Murray. “I don't think that's necessarily the thought process. You pressure him with coverage and disguise […] but to rattle him, yeah, that’s not something that’s in the plan.”
With experienced quarterbacks, reliable wide-outs and powerful running backs strewn across both rosters, this battle may come down to which defense holds the strongest. That task may seem daunting for each defense heading into the game, but both units will need to be ready come 3:30 p.m. EST on Saturday.
LSU receiver Jarvis Landry summed it up well on Monday when he told media members that he came to LSU to face elite competition like Georgia. Coach Richt shared similar sentiments.
“It’s why [players] come to Georgia – for games like this.”
Saturday’s showdown will mark the 30th meeting between the two schools…LSU holds a 16-12-1 edge in the all-time series with Georgia, which dates back to 1928…This week’s renewal of the series will be the eighth consecutive time that each team has been ranked in the Top-25 at the time of the game…LSU coach Les Miles is 2-2 against UGA, while Georgia coach Mark Richt is 3-4 overall against the Tigers…This will be the first regular season meeting between UGA and LSU since 2009…the last meeting came in Atlanta in the SEC Championship Game in 2011 with LSU recording a 42-10 victory.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
2011 – LSU 42, Georgia 10 (Atlanta, Ga. – SEC Championship Game)
2009 – LSU 20, Georgia 13 (Athens, Ga.)
2008 – Georgia 52, LSU 38 (Baton Rouge, La.)
2005 – Georgia 34, LSU 14 (Atlanta, Ga. – SEC Championship Game)
2004 – Georgia 45, LSU 16 (Athens, Ga.)
A LOOK AT THE LAST MEETING
With the SEC Championship on the line, No. 1 LSU and No. 16 Georgia took the field at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Bulldogs started quickly out of the gate, using a strong first quarter to claim a 10-0 lead, but UGA receivers dropped a pair of potential touchdown passes that left the door cracked for the Tigers. With LSU in need of a spark, Tyrann Mathieu broke loose for a scintillating 62-yard touchdown on a punt return, and the Tigers took off from that point to rally off 42 unanswered points and seize the conference title. Georgia outgained LSU on the evening and the Tigers could barely muster anything in the passing game, but three Bulldog turnovers, 207 LSU rushing yards and big plays from Mathieu proved to be the difference.
PLAYMAKERS – OFFENSE
Georgia – Aaron Murray, Senior, Quarterback
Georgia may have the best running back in the country in Todd Gurley, but quarterback Aaron Murray is making a case to be considered among the best passers in the history of the SEC. Murray’s career has been nothing short of remarkable, as he leads the nation in total yards (11,352), completions (755), touchdowns responsible for (113), touchdown passes (102) and passing yards (11,131). As is the case with every quarterback, however, Murray receives the blunt of the blame when the Bulldogs fall short in big games. In his career, Murray is 5-11 against ranked teams, and will look to record another signature win against LSU this weekend, which boasts an elite defense that has held opponents to just 4.6 yards per play and 173 passing yards per game in ’13. Murray has thrown for over 300 yards in each of his first three games this season, hitting 11 different receivers and throwing seven TDs in the process. While LSU’s defense is stout, it will have its hands full with UGA’s offense, which is spearheaded by Murray and ranks among the nation’s best in its own right.
LSU – Receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry
LSU has no shortage of talented running backs, as all four backs listed on its depth chart have led the Tigers in rushing in at least one game in their careers, and all four have at least one 100-yard rushing game under their belts. But the most dynamic playmakers for LSU under first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have been wide-outs Beckham Jr. and Landry. In four games this season, the duo has combined for 44 receptions (11 per game), 753 yards (17.1 per catch) and all 10 of LSU’s receiving touchdowns (six by Landry, four by Beckham Jr.). Beckham has been the more explosive of the two pass-catchers, averaging nearly 20 yards per reception so far while also hitting homerun plays on special teams, an area of vulnerability last week for Georgia against North Texas. Landry has been a beacon of consistency for the Tigers, hauling in at least one touchdown in six consecutive games and eight of the last nine overall. Landry’s streak of consistency for QB Zach Mettenberger dates back to last season, as he has snagged 57 receptions in the Tigers’ last nine outings, an average of 6.3 per game.
PLAYMAKERS – DEFENSE
Georgia – Bulldogs Front Seven
Georgia has the luxury of one of the nation’s best offensive units, which has made up for an underwhelming defensive performance thus far in 2013. In UGA’s first two games of the season, both of which were against teams ranked in the top-10, the Dawgs were gashed on the ground – Clemson ran for 197 yards in week one, while South Carolina went for 226 yards in week two. The Tigers and Gamecocks averaged over five yards per carry against the Georgia defense, which will need to be stronger along the front seven this weekend with a plethora of talented running backs headed to Athens led by LSU’s Jeremy Hill, who ran for 184 yards last week against Auburn. The Bulldogs have had to call on a bevy of young players to replace a wave of NFL talent from last year’s unit, as 10 true freshmen have seen the field on defense so far. More experienced players like defensive linemen Garrison Smith and Mike Thornton will be leaned upon, as will the line-backing corps led by junior Amarlo Herrera and sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who will try to generate pressure on Mettenberger off the edge on passing downs.
LSU – Craig Loston, Senior, Safety
Despite a slew of talented LSU defenders opting to enter the NFL Draft after the 2012 season, safety Craig Loston stuck around for his final year of eligibility and has been a difference maker for the Tigers as expected. Many believe that Loston, who projects as an early-round selection in next year’s draft, is one of the best safeties in the country. Loston and LSU have been extremely tough against the pass so far in 2013 and will face their first true test this weekend when Murray leads Georgia’s proficient offense inside Sanford Stadium. Despite losing wide-out Malcolm Mitchell for the season, Murray has spread the ball around efficiently once again this year, and Loston will be the cornerstone of the LSU secondary trying to slow him down. LSU has only surrendered six yards per pass attempt this season, but Murray enters this week’s showdown averaging over 12 yards per attempt on the other side. Something will have to give.
• LSU has not trailed in 240 minutes of action this season, and the Tigers have outscored their opponents 62-3 in the first quarter.
• LSU’s last loss in the month of September came on 9/16/2006 at Auburn in a 7-3 game.
• Georgia is 31-45-2 all-time against ranked opponents at Sanford Stadium. This weekend will be the third time that ESPN’s College Gameday will be in Athens.
• The Bulldogs have toppled top-10 teams at home 10 times since 1942. A win over No. 6 LSU would give the Dawgs two wins over top-10 teams in the same season for the ninth time in school history. (UGA beat South Carolina at home on Sept. 7 when the Gamecocks were ranked sixth in the country).
• Through four games in 2013, LSU has racked up 1,921 yards of offense. That is the most total yardage the Tigers have piled up through four games since 1977.
• Both LSU and Georgia have played 14 true freshmen this season.