January 30, 2023

Georgia went into the 2019 SEC championship game with a big task.

Jake Fromm and the Bulldogs stared at an undefeated LSU team led by Heisman favorite Joe Burrow and one of the most explosive offenses in college football history. The Tigers scored 726 points that year, fueled by their star quarterback’s 60 touchdown passes, and set an NCAA record for highest total points in a single season.

LSU dispatched Georgia through a combination of offensive firepower and a smothering defense, winning 37-10. The Bulldogs lost their second straight SEC title game, and Georgia became just another step on the Tigers’ road to eventual national championship victory.

Now, LSU and Georgia meet again in the SEC championship game — the fifth time these two teams have met for that particular duel — as the Tigers seek to defeat the Bulldogs again. The only problem with that?

This is not 2019.

The roles of the game are reversed this time, and Georgia comes into the encounter with a 14-game winning streak, college football’s best defense and a championship-winning head coach. Kirby Smart is no stranger to being favored in a football game, although he has tried to keep his team motivated against every opponent they face.

“The team targeted everyone we played against,” Smart said. “That’s our goal, it’s to target the people we’re playing against, target them, attack them.”

This week’s target is LSU, despite being a very different team to the Bulldogs in 2019. Brian Kelly led the group to a 9-3 record in his first season as head coach of the Tigers, despite being on his time only 39 fellows accepted the job in January.

LSU’s work during the offseason was one reason for the accelerated turnaround. The team brought in quarterback Jayden Daniels, who transferred from Arizona State. In his first season as a signal caller for the Tigers, he became the center of offense. Daniels has over 3,000 offensive yards this year, including a three-game stretch in which he had 14 touchdowns and propelled LSU to the top of the SEC West.

The Tigers’ incoming freshman class was also a factor in the team’s success. First-year players have impacted the roster up and down this season. Harold Perkins is the best example of this. He currently has the third-most sacks in the SEC and leads the Tigers in that category.

Despite these changes to LSU’s framework, Kelly expressed doubts about his inaugural season with a new team.

“You have to look at the circumstances when you come into a business or an organization. How is the organizational health?” said Kelly after securing a spot in the SEC championship game. “The organizational health was such that it had to be restarted. It started with new coaches, new supervisors. There are some circumstances where there is a transition where [winning the SEC West] could be realistic [for a new coach]. That would not have been a realistic expectation in this situation.”

BJ Ojulari, whose brother Azeez played for Georgia until he was drafted into the NFL, is a holdover on LSU’s roster before Kelly was hired. Ojulari is second on the team in sacks – only behind Perkins – and he said Kelly’s mentality has played an important role in the group’s development this season.

“We know our potential, we know what we have to do,” said Ojulari. “We will continue to use his process, continue to use our process every week. And later we started to see the benefits of just locking yourself in, everyone buys into that process.”

That buy-in paid off, and now the Tigers face their biggest challenge yet in the SEC title game. LSU has found multiple ways to win this season, sometimes with an electric attack, sometimes with an opportunistic defense, and Georgia threatens to end Kelly’s unlikely championship boost.

For Georgia, however, Saturday’s matchup means something different. A loss would be disappointing — and would drop the Bulldogs to a 4-1 record in the SEC championship during Smart’s tenure — although Georgia could still be in contention for a national championship depending on how the college football playoff committee sees it votes.

Kearis Jackson has now been with the Bulldogs for five seasons, and while he’s won the SEC championship four times during that tenure, he has never won an SEC title. With that in mind, he wasn’t overly concerned about the team’s status as SEC East champions.

“I didn’t celebrate it too much,” Jackson said after winning the SEC East crown. “I know we have bigger goals ahead of us and I’m pleased that we were able to advance to an SEC championship as a team, but at the same time we have bigger goals.”

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