Georgia starts strong, but can't finish against top-ranked LSU


ATLANTA -- It was, in a final analysis, an all-too-painful history lesson for Georgia.

Literature tells us that if your ambition is to topple the king, you have to kill him. You can't just wound him.

For about a half in Saturday's SEC championship game, Georgia had visions of knocking off No. 1 LSU in what would have been a victory of historic proportions. It would have given Georgia its first SEC championship since 2005. It would have sent the Bulldogs to the Sugar Bowl after an 0-2 start.

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And a Georgia victory would very likely have given the SEC an unprecedented three teams in the BCS. LSU's perfect score in the BCS Standings probably would have allowed the Tigers to play for the national championship even if they had lost. No. 2 Alabama surely would have been waiting on the other side.

But taking a 10-0 lead, which very easily could have been 21-0, Georgia did not put the LSU Tigers away. They rose from the ashes to dominate the No. 12 Bulldogs 42-10 and capture the 2011 SEC Championship.

"We had some chances early in the game to put them in a pretty good hole," Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. "When we didn't take advantage of those opportunities it gave them some life."

For a long time to come, Georgia will remember two plays:

 On Georgia's first possession the Bulldogs drove to the LSU 22-yard line before a pass from Murray went through the hands of Tavarres King in the end zone. Georgia had to settle for a 40-yard field goal by Blair Walsh.

 Georgia coach Mark Richt, doing his best impersonation of Sean Payton, called for an onside kick, which was recovered by the Bulldogs. But again the Bulldogs could not capitalize on the opportunity. Georgia drove to the LSU 27-yard line and a pass went right through Malcom Mitchell's hands at the 5-yard line. He could have waltzed into the end zone.

Then Walsh, an All-America kicker, missed a 45-yard field goal. Georgia went up 10-0 on a short slant route to tight end Aron White with 42 seconds left in the first quarter. But for Georgia there was the nagging sense that an opportunity had been lost.

It had.

Tyrann Mathieu, the Honey Badger, woke up his team, which was playing like group of guys who knew they were going to play for the national championship win or lose. He returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown with 5:48 left in the second quarter to pull the Tigers to within a field goal at halftime.

"To be honest with you, I enjoy watching the guy play football other than what he plays against us," Richt said. "Because when you do see a guy like that, you can appreciate it."

As it turned out Mathieu, the MVP of the championship game, was not finished.

He recovered a Murray fumble in the third quarter that set up a touchdown and then had another electrifying punt return for 47 yards to that surely should earn him a trip to New York for next Saturday's Heisman ceremony.

"He is really, really good," Murray said of Mathieu. "At halftime we still felt pretty good about things but they just jumped on us in the second half. That is why they are the No. 1 team in the nation."

Georgia looked up at the end of the third quarter and, while the score was 28-10, it was beaten. The Bulldogs had taken their best shot and it was not nearly enough against an LSU contingent that has a chance to become a team for the ages. Eight of LSU's 13 victims have been ranked in the Top 25. If LSU beats Alabama in the BCS championship game, it will have four wins against the top five.

"My hat’s off to them," Richt said. "They are a championship football team. I'm sure they'll do well in the last game."

Georgia was denied a storybook finish to a season that started like a nightmare. On Sept. 3 Georgia lost to Boise State 35-21 in this very building. Then a week later South Carolina got 28 points off three turnovers and a fake punt in a 45-42 win over the Bulldogs in Athens.

Georgia was coming off a 6-7 season, Richt's worst in his 10 previous years. An 0-2 start began a firestorm of talk-show callers demanding Richt's dismissal.

But Richt remained calm and told all who would listen that Georgia would have a chance to run the table against a schedule that did not include the league's three heavyweights: Alabama, LSU, and Arkansas. And that is exactly what Georgia did, winning 10 straight game, its longest winning streak since the 1982 team (led by Heisman Trophy-winner Herschel Walker), went 11-0 and played Penn State for the national championship.

But LSU, as Georgia found out, was simply a powerful, relentless machine.

If the game had lasted 30 minutes, the Bulldogs showed they had the right stuff to hang with LSU. But only No. 2 Alabama has been able to compete with LSU for 60 minutes. For the 12th time this season, LSU wore down the opposition and then beat them up.

"We are a good team and now we know what a great team looks like," Murray said. "Because LSU is a great team."

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show Wednesday at 8 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.

Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.

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