By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Birmingham, Ala. – This is the week we wait all year for.
The SEC Championship Game is more than just a Saturday in our business; it is a week-long affair that puts a shiny red bow on the conference’s football season. For the past five years it has meant that much more, serving as a defacto National Championship semifinal game.
While that didn’t appear to be the case in 2011, this contest still held significant title implications. This game would help to decide how many SEC teams (more on that later) would compete for title glory, giving an added aura to an already important matchup. This event remains at the top of my list when it comes to moments that I look forward to most during the year, and this year’s surrounding excitement made it all the more special.
If you haven’t been to the Georgia Dome during the first week of December, you don’t know what you are missing.
The atmosphere, the pageantry and the connection between the fans in attendance make it a truly memorable experience. For any true fan of sport, being in the stands as the SEC’s two divisional champions take the field is a sight to behold. There is nothing like it.
When planning out my weekly schedule, I didn’t originally plan on writing this column. With the jammed packed schedule that is the SEC Championship Game, I didn’t think I’d have the proper time to fully explain the conference’s crowning event.
But, in the end, I had stories to tell. What was supposed to be a week of certainty quickly delved into series of questions and utter chaos. According to the media, we knew exactly what was going to happen.
Except we didn’t. Let me explain.
First Down: LSU Dominates Second Half, Defeats Georgia
WATCH SEC "INSIDE ACCESS" CHAMPIONSHIP VIDEO HERE
The final score of the 2011 SEC Championship Game was 42-10.
Upon first glance, if you didn’t watch Saturday’s matchup, you would just assume that LSU dominated again. As they had against Arkansas the week before, or against West Virginia in September, you just figured that LSU demolished their opponent, leaving another team in their wake of impressive victories.
However, if you watched these two squads square off in the Georgia Dome, you know that wasn’t the case. Despite playing their worst half of offensive football of the entire 2011 season, LSU still defeated a talented Georgia bunch by 32 points.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Georgia, who absolutely dominated LSU for 30 minutes of Saturday’s game, still came up on the short end of the scoreboard, failing to hold on as the Tiger train rolled past in the second half. The Bulldogs, sporting a home field advantage playing in nearby Atlanta, stormed out of the gate, but failed to capitalize on early opportunities, leaving the door ajar for Les Miles and the nation’s top team to roar back.
You could almost see it happening as the game unfolded. Georgia, ironclad as the underdog in this championship matchup, came out swinging early, firing up the crowd and playing with a “nothing to lose” attitude. Their aggression caught LSU off guard, and Georgia hit first in this heavyweight title bout.
Bulldog head coach Mark Richt threw the kitchen sink at LSU. They attacked vertically, recovered an onside kick, and even confused LSU with their running game. Richt and company had complete control, with their defense so stout that LSU couldn’t manage a first down the entire half. Tiger quarterback Jordan Jefferson failed to complete a pass during that stretch, and Georgia had all of the momentum as a shocked Dome crowd contemplated the possibility of an upset.
In the face of all that, it was what Georgia couldn’t do and what LSU could that swung the entire game.
On the game’s first drive, Georgia knifed through LSU. Murray picked the Tiger secondary apart, getting into the red zone in a matter of plays. But, on a key third down, Murray fired incomplete over the middle, with a Georgia receiver failing to convert what should have been a Georgia touchdown. Instead of a 7-0 lead, the Bulldogs converted only three, knocking home a field goal.
Before LSU could respond, Richt dug into his bag of tricks. The Bulldogs perfectly executed an onside kick, recovering and sending Murray back out onto the field in a matter of seconds. Georgia connected on LSU’s jaw again.
But, as had happened on the previous drive, a key drop cost Georgia a touchdown. This time it cost the Bulldogs points all together, as a missed field goal kept the score at 3-0. Georgia did manage to finally hit pay dirt later in the quarter, but by then the damage, or lack there of, had been done.
Instead of a commanding 21-0 lead or more, the score stood at 10-0 when LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu went back to return a punt in the second quarter. Mathieu, known by his nickname, the “Honey Badger”, erased all of Georgia’s momentum in a 62-yard touchdown run. Mathieu, who was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player, got LSU right back into the game in one electrifying return.
Just like that, the entire game changed. Georgia was now locked in a battle against a team they’d dominated all night long. Miles must have been giddy to get to halftime, happy to only be trailing by three after shrugging off the biggest haymakers Georgia could throw.
The second half was the polar opposite. After an early Georgia turnover, LSU started an impressive run, scoring 35 straight points en route to victory. Miles’ crew scored on defense, special teams and on the ground, putting together as phenomenal a 30-minute stretch of college football that I’ve seen all season.
What we learned Saturday ended up being what we thought going into the contest. LSU is great. Not good, but great. Despite struggling for an entire half, they still completely outclassed a team that won 10 straight ballgames during the season. The Tigers belong in a class of their own.
When it comes to comparisons for LSU, right now there isn’t one. Late in the fourth quarter, the LSU fans starting chanting “We Want Green Bay”, a reference to the defending Super Bowl Champions. While common sense tells us that LSU would have no shot against the Packers, they way they are playing now, forgive me if I’d hesitate for a just a second before picking against the Tigers.
What a talented bunch from Baton Rouge.
Second Down: Rematch
Saturday was one of the longest days of my life. As you can imagine, the day of a major event is always trying, with a multitude of items needing to be completed before you even step foot on the host site. While this is a usual occurrence, added circumstances toward the tail end of my 16-hour session left me exhausted the moment my head hit my pillow.
What was the root of it all? The ongoing debate about “the rematch”.
First off, I’ll admit: I work for the SEC. To many others, that disqualifies me from being objective on this matter. While I disagree with that assessment, I can understand why people feel that way. If I were looking at my title from the outside world, I’d probably feel the same way.
When I got home from working the SEC Championship Game, “Bedlam” was just underway. Oklahoma State was playing well, and making an impressive statement against in-state rival and fellow top 10 team Oklahoma.
As the scoring margin increased, so did the vitriol on Twitter
. Oklahoma State fans were clamoring for the right to play for the National Title, while the SEC Nation pushed hard for a “rematch” between Alabama and LSU. College football media members surveyed the electronic landscape, watching the convoluted mess unfold as the last seconds ticked down in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
After the game went final, a 44-10 drubbing by the Cowboys, OSU head coach Mike Gundy raised the bar. While being interviewed on the field during postgame, he made the case for his team to be LSU’s opponent. His rhetoric was strong, rallying those in favor of the OSU cause. SEC fans retorted, pointing to history as the reason a rematch was essential.
I tried to stay out of the fray, but the tone continued to escalate. Arguments became personal, and rational thought began to go out the window. Despite originally deciding that I was going to ignore it all and get some sleep, instead I was drawn to my keyboard in hopes of resetting the debate. It didn’t work.
My stance on this issue hasn’t changed in the past week. I made it clear in my last column. My thought was simple. Despite the concerns that Alabama didn’t win their conference championship, or that they had already played LSU, I felt the Crimson Tide was the nation’s second best team.
Not that I didn’t respect Oklahoma State, or see their argument for a spot in the BCS Title Game. Ultimately I felt the Cowboys loss to a 6-6 Iowa State team was too much to ignore, considering Alabama’s only loss was in overtime against who everyone agrees is the best team in the country (LSU).
That statement I tried to get through (admittedly I probably didn’t do a good job) was directed at the poll voters themselves. I was upset that the process of the vote was being lost, and instead people were openly debating about using their ballots to try and force a certain matchup to happen.
To me, that was always the worst case scenario. If Oklahoma State ended up number two on Sunday night, I’d have been disappointed, but content. Especially if the reasons the Cowboys moved up in the BCS rankings were based on rational debate and proven facts. Certain media members, their intentions unknown, started to complain that they didn’t want to see LSU play Alabama again.
Despite somewhat acknowledging that the Crimson Tide was superior, they began to entertain the notion of voting Oklahoma State higher just because they’d rather see the Cowboys play LSU. I couldn’t understand that logic (that isn’t logic by definition), and it infuriated me.
I would consider it an honor to be able to vote in a nationally recognized poll (I don’t, by the way), especially one that determines a piece of the National Championship puzzle (as the polls do in college football). To simply take that vote and try to use it to manipulate an outcome, undermining the process, isn’t the purpose. That was getting lost on Saturday night.
I’d be lying if I didn’t regret being so vociferous in my defense of Alabama’s credentials, as I spent the better part of an hour trying to make my point louder than the masses that disagreed with me. That’s part of my passion though, and I was especially riled up after what had been a long and full day.
In the end, LSU-Alabama “Part II” will take place, insuring the SEC will win its sixth straight National Championship. That is an amazing accomplishment in itself. Six straight was still possible had Oklahoma State been the choice, but it wasn’t meant to be. The breaks fell Alabama’s way.
The college sports world is a cocoon, and often times we get so animated in our bubble that we lose the greater perspective. These are games, even if their outcomes feel like life and death to those of us that follow them every week.
That being said, I can’t wait to go to New Orleans. The SEC will make history on January 9th
, and I’ll be there to watch as it happens.
Third Down: The Bowl Season Begins
Lost in the drama of whether or not the “rematch” would happen, the rest of the SEC’s bowl eligible teams will hit the field in the coming weeks for their final game of the 2011 season
. Six teams (not including LSU and Alabama) advanced to postseason play, with some intriguing matchups highlighting the holiday schedule.
--- Florida vs. Ohio State
The first game that stands out is a matchup of old versus new, as Florida and Ohio State will take the field in the Gator Bowl. This is a rematch of the 2007 National Championship Game, which saw a freshman quarterback named Tim Tebow score a touchdown in the Gators’ title victory.
The coach of that Florida team? That would be one Urban Meyer, who was recently hired to roam the sidelines for Ohio State starting next season.
This “Urban” bowl should be high drama, with plenty of opportunities for the media to bring up past connections between the Gators and the Buckeyes (namely Urban Meyer). The product on the field should be fun to watch too, with two young but talented teams squaring off. Speed will be everywhere, and we will see which conference will gain the upperhand in Jacksonville, Fla.
---South Carolina vs. Nebraska
Another game that should be fun to watch is the Capitol One Bowl, with South Carolina lining up against Nebraska. I find this interesting for a few reasons, most of them surrounding Gamecock head coach Steve Spurrier. Spurrier, before he came to South Carolina, was the architect of Florida’s great title runs in the 1990s, a legendary streak that has made the “Old/Head Ball Coach” (which is it?) a Hall of Famer.
But, when he failed, which wasn’t often, he did so against the University of Nebraska. 1996 comes to mind (turn your head Gator fans), as the Cornhuskers destroyed Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl. Will Spurrier get revenge? Those Florida teams and this year’s South Carolina squad couldn’t be more different, both from the offensive game plan they run to the very coach that leads them. Spurrier’s demeanor is more calm these days, a far cry from the rowdy attitude that made him a household name two decades ago.
This game will be physical, bruising and old school. Look out Orlando.
Here’s a quick rundown of the rest of the bowl games featuring SEC squads.
Dec. 30 – 6:40 p.m. ET (5:40 p.m. CT) – ESPN
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl – Nashville, Tenn.
Mississippi State vs. Wake Forest
Dec. 31 – 3:30 p.m. ET (2:30 p.m. CT) – ABC Sports
AutoZone Liberty Bowl – Memphis, Tenn.
Vanderbilt vs. Cincinnati
Dec. 31 – 7:30 p.m. ET (6:30 p.m. CT) – ESPN
Chick-fil-A Bowl – Atlanta, Ga.
Auburn vs. Virginia
Jan. 2 – 1 p.m. ET (Noon CT) – ABC Sports
Outback Bowl – Tampa, Fla.
Georgia vs. Michigan State
Jan. 6 – 8 p.m. ET (7 p.m. CT) – FOX Sports
AT&T Cotton Bowl – Arlington, Texas
Arkansas vs. Kansas State