December 2, 2005

SEC title game still reigns supreme

Conference championship games are one of the latest trends in college football. The ACC, Conference USA and MAC all added their first title games this season.

But in the first week of December, the SEC title game has normally generated more excitement and interest than the others, and that hasn't changed this year.

It's the only conference title game that features two teams ranked in the top 15 with No. 3 LSU (10-1) and No. 13 Georgia (9-2) meeting in Atlanta on Saturday. None of the other title games includes teams that are both ranked in even the top 25.

There is also some revenge at stake in the matchup between the Tigers and Bulldogs, which has been chosen as Rivals.com's Game of the Week. It's a rematch of the 2003 SEC championship game when the Tigers rolled to a 34-13 victory behind 201 rushing yards and two touchdowns from MVP Justin Vincent.

Just a freshman at the time, Vincent is one of the few starters who is back. Both teams have a collection of new leaders on both sides of the ball, and the Tigers have a different head coach in Les Miles, who took over the program in the offseason.

But the core of the teams remains similar, as both are built around dominating defenses. The Tigers rank fourth in scoring defense nationally, giving up 13.5 points per game, and the Bulldogs are fifth, giving up 14.6 per game.

The Tigers' defense ranks fifth in total defense (allowing 278 yards per game) and in rushing defense (90 yards per game). That's part of a remarkable turnaround for a defense that gave up 61 points and 880 yards in its two games.

"We are playing with a lot more confidence now," Tigers defensive end Chase Pittman said. "From the Arizona State game until now, there's been a big change. We kind of have a swagger to us."

The 2003 Tigers blitzed relentlessly, but this defense has managed to create pressure on quarterbacks without being as aggressive, racking up 33 sacks.

Georgia's offensive line will probably present the Tigers with one of their toughest challenges. The Bulldogs have blocked well in passing situations nearly all season, giving up 19 sacks, the second-lowest number in the SEC.

The Bulldogs' defense will be getting a boost with the return of middle linebacker Tony Taylor, who has been recovering from a knee injury. Taylor is expected to start.

Both teams are relatively healthy, although Tigers guard Will Arnold is out with a knee injury. Terrell McGill, who started in the Tigers' 19-17 win over Arkansas last week, will take Arnold's place again.

Offensive edge: D.J. Shockley gives the Bulldogs the slight advantage here. The quarterback hasn't been sharp as of late, going 52 of 101 (51 percent) since returning from a minor knee injury. But while he has been plagued by some drops, his decision-making has remained solid and that could be the difference. Plus, he has a go-to target in tight end Leonard Pope.

Defensive edge: The Tigers may have the most talented defense in the nation and they have been playing like it for the last half of the season. They don't have a weakness, and defensive tackle Kyle Williams and safety LaRon Landry are players who can single-handedly change the momentum of an entire game.

Special teams edge: Georgia's kicking game is better. Brandon Coutu might have the strongest leg in the league and has made 21-of-27 field goals, including two from 53 yards. LSU's Chris Jackson, who is also an excellent punter, has struggled, making 7-of-15 field goals. But LSU punt returner Skyler Green is too dangerous to pick against the Tigers in this matchup. The Bulldogs will be making a mistake if they choose to kick to the playmaker.

Coaching edge: This one is easy. Georgia's Mark Richt has been here, Miles has not. This will be the third time Richt has been in this game in four years; Miles has never coached in a conference title game. Richt has made some poor decisions in the final minutes of tight games, but his experience will be invaluable.

LSU player to watch: Vincent may be No. 2 on the depth chart, but he could be the star again. The junior excels on turf, and with starter Joseph Addai battling some nagging injuries, he will get a solid number of touches.

Georgia player to watch: Big hits often swing momentum, especially in games like this, and there may not a bigger hitter in college football than safety Greg Blue. An intimidating player, Blue relishes slamming receivers to the ground. But he has problems in coverage at times, so the Tigers may try to take advantage of his overly aggressive nature.

Georgia will win if … the receivers stop dropping passes and the defense plays its best game of the season.

LSU will win if … Vincent or Addai runs for 100 yards and the Tigers make at least one big play on special teams.

X-Factor: The Georgia Dome, located 80 miles west of Georgia's campus, is actually more of an advantage for the Tigers, who are 4-0 in Atlanta. The Tigers won another SEC title over Tennessee and Peach Bowls over Clemson and Georgia Tech there. Players like Green and Vincent are at least a half step faster on the speedy surface.

The Pick: Georgia 17, LSU 13


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