Consider it the next-best thing to a playoff game.
There certainly is no guarantee that the winner of Saturday's showdown between LSU and Georgia will play for the national championship, but you can pretty much eliminate the loser from consideration for the title.
LSU beat the odds last year by winning a national title after losing two regular-season games, but the odds don't favor history repeating itself. That leaves both teams heading into Death Valley in a must-win situation.
This also marks the beginning of the most treacherous part of Georgia's brutal schedule. The trip to Baton Rouge kicks off a four-game stretch in which the Bulldogs face LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn all away from home.
Georgia coach Mark Richt considers Death Valley the loudest road environment he has faced.
"My strongest memory of being there is in 2003 when we were down 10-3 late in the game and threw a screen pass that went 90-something yards and tied up the score with a couple minutes to go," Richt said, referring to LSU's 17-10 victory five years ago. "I was expecting a hush from the crowd. Usually when the opposing team does well, the crowd quiets down. All I began to hear was a chant. 'L-S-U! L-S-U!' It got louder and louder and louder. It was the loudest I've ever heard a stadium."
Georgia is returning to Death Valley at perhaps the worst possible time.
LSU's star-studded defensive line hadn't quite lived up to expectations for most of the season, but the Tigers finally delivered a big performance last week by recording six sacks in a 24-17 victory at South Carolina. Senior defensive end Tyson Jackson is the reigning SEC defensive lineman of the week and has compiled two sacks in each of his last two games.
"He just continues to play extremely well," LSU coach Les Miles said. "His effort is without question on every play, and it's all out."
LSU's experienced front four now faces a Georgia offensive line that started three freshmen and two sophomores last week against Vanderbilt, though that young line is ranked 24th in the nation in sacks allowed.
The Bulldogs understand this game could be won or lost at the line of scrimmage.
"It's definitely going to be a big key," Georgia fullback Brannan Southerland said. "We are going to need our offensive line to handle their defensive line. We're going to need some time for (Matthew) Stafford to throw, and we're going to need some running lanes for Knowshon (Moreno) and Caleb (King) to run. They are very fast, big athletic and experienced, so it's going to be a good matchup. Our offensive line is going to need to play very well come Saturday."
Yet this game features so much star power on both sidelines that the confrontation between Georgia's offensive line and LSU's defensive line isn't the only intriguing matchup of the day. In fact, as you'll see below, we're spotlighting another facet of this game as the SEC's best matchup of the week.
LSU RBs Charles Scott and Keiland Williams vs. Georgia's run defense: Scott briefly earned some Heisman Trophy consideration after rushing for more than 100 yards in each of LSU's first four games, but he's cooled a bit since then. Scott has run for a total of 96 yards on 28 carries in the Tigers' last two games, though he did score two touchdowns last week in a 24-17 victory over South Carolina. Scott also got some help last week from Williams, who rushed for 72 yards on 15 carries against the Gamecocks. Now he must face a Georgia defense that ranks third in the nation against the run. Even though the Bulldogs lost starting defensive end Jeff Owens to a season-ending injury early in the year, they're allowing only 2.4 yards per carry and 61 rushing yards per game. But it isn't impossible to run against Georgia. Although Alabama averaged less than 3 yards per carry in a 41-30 victory over Georgia, the Tide rushed for four touchdowns and controlled the line of scrimmage in the early going. Alabama's Glen Coffee rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns in that game. If either Scott or Williams can match Coffee's production against Georgia, LSU ought to win the game.
Alabama NG Josh Chapman: This guy has the unenviable task of replacing 365-pound Terrence Cody as the Crimson Tide's top run stuffer. Cody's physical presence in the middle of the line has helped give Alabama the nation's fourth-ranked run defense, but he will miss at least two games after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his right knee last week in a 24-20 victory over Ole Miss. Chapman, a 6-foot-1, 303-pound sophomore from Hoover, Ala., will get the first shot at replacing Cody. The Tide have alternatives if Chapman doesn't perform well. Defensive end Lorenzo Washington played nose guard last year and has been practicing at his old position this week. The Tide can't afford their run defense to take a hit without Cody in the lineup. Alabama's dominance on both sides of the line of scrimmage has played the biggest role in the Tide's 7-0 start.
Alabama strong safety Justin Woodall has intercepted a pass in four of his last five games. … Arkansas RB Michael Smith has rushed for a total of 501 yards in the Razorbacks' last three games. He has run for at least 133 yards in each of those contests. … Florida RB Jeffrey Demps has run for 232 yards and three touchdowns on just 17 carries in the Gators' last two games. … Florida WR Percy Harvin has scored at least one touchdown in four consecutive games. … Florida kicker Jonathan Phillips is 9-for-9 on field-goal attempts this season. … Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno has rushed for 273 yards over the last two weeks. … Georgia WR A.J. Green has caught a touchdown pass in three of his last four games. He has caught at least six passes overall in four consecutive games. … LSU DE Tyson Jackson has recorded two sacks in back-to-back games. … Tennessee strong safety Eric Berry has picked off a pass in three consecutive games. Berry scored on a 72-yard interception return last week in a 34-3 victory over Mississippi State.
Arkansas QB Casey Dick has thrown five interceptions and only one touchdown pass over his last three games. … South Carolina RB Mike Davis has rushed for 50 yards on 24 carries in his last two games. … South Carolina kicker Ryan Succop has gone 3-for-9 on field-goal attempts over his last three games. … Tennessee RB Arian Foster still hasn't scored a touchdown this season after reaching the end zone 14 times last year.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"Once the whistle blows and once that ball is kicked off, I think it's just like every other football game. We're trying to get our guys in the right position and all of that, so you get lost in the game. You can't help having a lot of feeling for the guys you recruited there and the guys you know. You know their families, so naturally there is a relationship there." - Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt discussing the mixed emotions involved in returning to Arkansas this week to face his former team. Nutt coached Arkansas from 1998-2007.
"It was a real bad feeling. Nobody liked that plane ride home. Everybody was real upset. I've wanted to play them ever since that game." - LSU OG Herman Johnson to The New Orleans Times-Picayune about the Tigers' 34-14 loss to Georgia in the 2005 SEC title game. This marks the first time LSU has faced Georgia since that game.
"I wasn't too impressed from early childhood. A big-time program. I really didn't like it that much. Just not where I wanted to be. … I was more of an LSU fan." - West Virginia QB Pat White of Daphne, Ala., explaining to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette why he wasn't an Auburn fan growing up. West Virginia plays host to Auburn on Thursday night.
"Duke is getting better. You can see it. And they've played some tough games this year. I think people look at Duke like they usually look at Vanderbilt and think they can just show up and then they'll beat Vanderbilt or beat Duke, but it's going to be a different story this year. They're a better team, and they are looking pretty good this year. So we cannot overlook these guys because we're in for a dogfight. They're trying to get into a bowl game just like we are. I think that's on everybody's mind, to get to a bowl game." -Vanderbilt WR Jamie Graham to VandySports.com.
"What our team has been trying to do is change the culture of Kentucky football. I think we've done that, but some people don't get it. I'm thrilled that we're sitting here picking away at every little thing on our team, and we're 5-2. Four years ago, people would have been shooting off fireworks at 5-2, but not now. I don't have a problem with that, but there is a difference between having a problem with that and just being negative to be negative." - Kentucky coach Rich Brooks to CatsPause.com.
"I get asked about it in all of my classes. I probably average about 10 questions a day. I am going to go meet with (wide receivers) coach (Latrell) Scott and see what is going on with that. There's no telling. It might be this week or next week. It's coming soon, I think." - Tennessee SS Eric Berry to VolQuest.com about the possibility of playing offense.
Mississippi State quarterback Tyson Lee will remain the Bulldogs' starting quarterback Saturday against Middle Tennessee despite throwing three interceptions and spraining a knee ligament against Tennessee last week. … Kentucky RB Derrick Locke suffered a season-ending knee injury Saturday in a 21-20 victory over Arkansas. Locke had a team-high 303 rushing yards and also ranked 12th in the nation in kickoff return average. … Kentucky DT Myron Pryor also will sit out the Florida game this weekend with a high ankle sprain. … The SEC had four schools ranked among the top 13 teams in the initial BCS rankings. The SEC representatives in the top 13 are No. 2 Alabama, No. 7 Georgia, No. 10 Florida and No. 13 LSU. … The 25-yard field goal by Ole Miss kicker Josh Shene last week marked the first time Alabama had allowed points in the first quarter all season. Alabama is outscoring teams 95-3 in the opening period. … Enrique Davis' 62-yard run against Alabama last week was the longest play from scrimmage the Tide have allowed this season. … South Carolina WR Kenny McKinley is 75 yards behind Sterling Sharpe's school record of 2,497 career receiving yards. … The SEC has nine teams ranked in the top 24 in total defense: No. 6 South Carolina, No. 11 Tennessee, No. 12 Georgia, No. 14 Auburn, No. 15 Florida, No. 16 Alabama, No. 18 Kentucky, No. 22 Mississippi State and No. 24 LSU. … The SEC doesn't have any teams ranked in the top 25 in total offense.