The Fight in the Dawg

The SEC Championship likely means little to the national title picture. For Georgia and LSU fans, it remains an important battle for bragging rights.
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Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to explain the importance of college football in the Southern part of the US—particularly the tradition of Southeastern Conference football—to people who aren’t from the region. I come from this land down under, and family members who attended both Auburn and Alabama indoctrinated me early, with endless discussions of recruits and coaching staffs and spontaneous cries of “War Eagle!” and “Roll Tide! Roll!”

As I soon learned, alumni aren’t the only ones infected; the college football obsession spans entire towns and states and regions. My grandfather, who did not attend the University of Alabama, had taped to the front of his refrigerator a photo of legendary head coach Bear Bryant clipped from the Birmingham News. He would later build a room off the side of his house and call it The Alabama Room. When I went off to college at the University of Georgia, my grandfather wanted to visit me on a football weekend, though he had the good sense to wait until Georgia was hosting an SEC opponent.

So my SEC pedigree is strong, my belief unwavering. Like many fans, I fervently believe that SEC football is special, a brand of football above and beyond that presented by any other conference. My viewpoint has never been challenged by reality, nor do I ever expect it to be. As long as the SEC continues to crank out top-ranked teams playing for (and winning) Bowl Championship Series titles—as they have done for the last five consecutive seasons—any argument that denigrates SEC football will fall on my deaf ears.

That said, this year’s SEC Championship game will not involve the two best teams in the SEC, arguably the two best in the nation. This may seem counterintuitive, but logic is something that is frequently overlooked in the world of college football. LSU won the SEC West with an 8-0 record in the conference; Alabama finished second with 7-1 conference record; and Arkansas finished third at 6-2. LSU’s opponent, UGA, won the SEC East with a record of 7-1 in the conference, playing a weak schedule and losing to South Carolina, the only ranked conference opponent they played. UGA finished the season ranked 12th overall, behind all three SEC West contenders.

Saturday’s SEC Championship Game will have no effect on the National Championship picture, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing at stake. For LSU, it’s a chance to grab another trophy along the way to the one that really matters. If Georgia can somehow defeat LSU, they will probably vault a few spots higher in the BCS rankings and qualify for a lucrative spot in a BCS Bowl. But this isn’t totally about the BCS—for UGA, this is potentially bigger than whatever BCS bowl game they could play in. And for UGA fans such as myself, the SEC Championship game has a chance to be memorable, not to mention an opportunity to avenge UGA’s controversial last-second loss to LSU in 2009..

The 2011 Bulldogs don’t field any true offensive stars. Quarterback Aaron Murray seems to be confident if inconsistent, his pluck and control accompanied by unpredictable inspiration. Georgia’s running back corps has been a mess all season, beset by suspensions and injuries; prized freshman back Isaiah Crowell has been promising when not suspended or injured. After losing AJ Green to the NFL last summer, UGA saw fair performances this season from wideouts like junior Tavarres King and freshman Malcolm Mitchell, though the best receiver has been tight end Orson Charles. (Also, Charles holds a special place in UGA fans hearts because as a high school prospect, he accidentally shattered the University of Florida’s 2006 BCS trophy during a campus tour.) For homecoming, UGA hosted New Mexico State and, for added entertainment, suspended their top three running backs for various rules violations; they managed to squeak out a 63-16 win.

What ended up carrying Georgia this season was their defense, coordinated by the occasionally unstable Todd Grantham, who once make a choking sign at Florida’s kicker and this season found himself in a confrontation with Vanderbilt coach James Franklin. Linebacker Jarvis Jones was ruled medically ineligible to play at Southern Cal, then somehow allowed to play at UGA; he currently leads the SEC in sacks (13.5) and tackles for losses (19.5). UGA bookends the defense with an impressive set of corners in Branden Smith and Brandon Boykin, and also fields a safety with perhaps the most badass name in college football: Bacarri Rambo, who sounds more like a fictional adventure hero or perhaps a long-lost member of GWAR.

On the same evening back in September that UGA began with a loss against Boise State, LSU opened their season with a convincing win over then-third-ranked Oregon. They have yet to lose a game since. For many years, LSU coach Les Miles’ most consistent enemy was Les Miles. Despite proving some level of acumen by winning the 2007 BCS Championship, Miles often coaches like a person playing a college football video game for the first time, unfamiliar with the minutae of the rules. Still, LSU enters the SEC Championship game as one of the most dominant college football teams in recent memory. Their defense ranked second in the nation in points against, giving up an average of 10.6, while the offense rolled up an average of 38.2 points per game. The least exciting game LSU played all season was also probably their most-watched game, a 9-6 overtime win over number two Alabama. Nobody else gave them as much worry.

LSU is mostly recognized for its defense; that defense’s spiritual leader, and that of the team, is cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who is also known as Honey Badger. Mathieu’s nickname is derived directly from an internet meme, though thanks to obsessive coverage from ESPN and CBS, Mathieu has nearly become the meme himself. He has value that is hard to quantify, mostly because his statistics don’t seem to reflect his overall importance to LSU’s success. Mathieu has just two interceptions on the season, but he has forced six fumbles and recovered four fumbles, and when things are going well for LSU, Mathieu is often involved; a defensive Zelig, as it were.

"Who's the best two teams? That's the question.” This is the rhetoric Alabama coach Nick Saban grammatically dismantled earlier this week when asked about which teams belong in the BCS Championship Game. Saban was lobbying voters to keep Alabama at number two in the overall rankings, to give them a chance at a rematch with LSU with the National Championship at stake.

Alabama and Arkansas had their chances to beat LSU this season, and both teams came up short. This Saturday, Georgia gets its chance. Perhaps UGA played a subpar schedule, and winning an SEC Championship would give validation that this UGA team with a gaudy 10-2 record isn’t just a mirage of a contender fattened against a schedule packed with crummy opponents. But it still wouldn’t allow them the chance to compete for a national title.

This weekend, UGA can prove they are better than the best team in the country. Even a win for UGA amounts to little more than a nice memory for UGA fans, it would give us something to hang onto for a while. And something to remind LSU fans of every chance we get.

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Dawgs showed they have the game to be considered among the nation's elite, but lack the discipline to truly enter the discussion. Poor coaching or just lack of experience? We can't tell for sure, but much will be revealed in a 2012 that will bring weighty expectations to Athens. Go Dawgs.

Thanks for reading. Tough game, and just too many missed opportunities, particularly in the first half. I'd like to see the offense loosen up a bit, but we need better, more consistent play from the skill guys on offense.

Also, couldn't figure out how to get this into the piece, but RIP Larry Munson.