The SEC Championship Game this season features No. 1 Georgia battling No. 14 LSU inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The Bulldogs are on a mission to solidify their spot as the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff as the reigning national champions look to successfully defend their national title title. In front of them, however, is a very motivated LSU team led by first-year coach Brian Kelly that has turned some heads this season by earning some big victories.
The Tigers had faint College Football Playoff hopes of their own, but they disappeared in the loss to Texas A&M last week -- their third of the season. Will the disappointment of that upset linger, or will the hopes of being called "SEC champions" revitalize a team that looked like it was out of gas in College Station?
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Georgia vs. LSU: Need to know
What's up with LSU's rushing attack? The Tigers have rushed for 185 yards or more in each of their last five games, but it isn't like they have a superstar tailback. Noah Cain, John Emery Jr. and Josh Williams have all taken turns as the de facto No. 1 back, with quarterback Jayden Daniels operating as the primary threat on the ground for coach Brian Kelly's squad. Williams has missed the last two games with a knee sprain, but it sounds like Kelly is expecting him back this week.
"We wanted to make sure we got him at a full 100%," Kelly said. "He's the kind of runner who needs that but we all feel pretty good he'll be a part of the game plan this weekend."
Kirby Smart knows just how dangerous the Tigers can be on the ground.
"They're physical. Their backs run with a purpose," he said. "When you watch their backs, they're explosive through the hole. They have elite toughness. They seek contact. Each one of those guys runs with a really strong purpose. I mean, I've seen some really elite effort plays out of those guys, running to cover down. When Jayden pulls it, you see backs going out there and blocking for him down the field."
LSU absolutely has to establish the run in order to have a chance to spring the upset. That's a tall order against this Bulldogs defense.
Georgia's unique passing attack: Every team wants to achieve balance on offense, but not many do it within its passing attack. Georgia's a bit different. Its top three pass-catchers play three different positions -- tight end Brock Bowers, wide receiver Ladd McConkey and running back Kenny McIntosh. McConkey's success is probably the most important part of that "balance." The Bulldogs have been searching for a go-to receiver after Adonai Mitchell's injury earlier this year, and Smart knows what McConkey has brought to the team.
"Tough. What he's been is tough," Smart said. "He gives you work every day. He never wants to miss anything. If anything, we've had to overuse Ladd. You'd like to have a rotation of guys at that position, and we haven't been able to have a large rotation. He's taken a lot of reps. He gives you all he's got. He's really physical. He's been durable for a guy his size and his position. And really proud of the toughness he's shown to push through the injuries and beats and bangs he's had. He's been good for us in the return game. He's also been one of our best gunners down in punts and making tackles on punt coverage. So he's been extremely valuable."
Quarterback Stetson Bennett IV loves to take deep shots early to keep opposing defenses honest. McConkey will be the likely target. If those two connect early, it could be a long day for the Tigers defense.
LSU's "X-factor": If you didn't know linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. prior to November, you definitely know him now. Eight of his 11 tackles for loss came in the final month of the regular season, four of which came in the 13-10 win over Arkansas on November 12. If LSU is going to spring the upset, two things have to happen: Perkins has to get in the backfield and that pressure has to force Bennett to make mistakes. It is as simple as that. That means Bennett and the Bulldogs offensive line need to keep their heads on a swivel.
"You know where he's at when he's out there, right? They're going to use him in different ways," Smart said. "They've changed up the way they use him throughout the year. That's what good defensive coordinators do. They try to find different ways to put him in maybe a mismatch and utilize him. You have to know where he is, and you need to know where he is at all times because he's really athletic. He is very disruptive, and you make your team aware of it."
It's one thing to prepare for Perkins in practice, but it's another to do it on the fly. Bennett has been good and changing his protection at the line of scrimmage, and you can bet that his first look every play will be in Perkins' direction.
Georgia vs. LSU prediction, picks
Georgia will suffocate an LSU team that has to be demoralized after last week's stunning loss at Texas A&M. Daniels absolutely has to establish himself as the centerpiece of the Tigers ground game, otherwise it won't click. That's easier said than done against this Georgia defense that will force Daniels to win this game with his arm. That won't happen. However, Georgia knows that it needs to get this game over with as quickly as possible. The Bulldogs will build an early lead and take their foot off the gas pedal to allow the Tigers to cover. The game, however, will never be in doubt. Prediction: LSU (+17.5)
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