Five things to know for Georgia-LSU in SEC championship game

Georgia football and the LSU Tigers play for the SEC championship Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Here are five things to know ahead of the 4 p.m. game:

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Bulldogs on big stage again

Georgia returns to the SEC championship game for the second year in a row and fifth time in the last six years. Since the start of the 2020 season, the Bulldogs have won two New Year’s Six Bowls including a national semifinal and won the national championship last season.

“I think that their team clearly has themselves in a mindset that this is where we should be, and we expect to be here and we expect to win,” first-year LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “Anytime you face an opponent that's confident and believes they're going to win; you've got to beat that. You've got to go ahead and take that from them.It's like playing the Alabama teams, those that believe they're going to win football games. We were 1-9 against Alabama in the last 10 games. They believed that they were going to beat us, and we had to go take it from them. We'll have to do the same thing with Georgia.”

LSU took a steep dive after winning the national title in the 2019 season, but Georgia coach Kirby Smart discounted the Bulldogs big-game experience in this one.

“When you play in the conference that we both play in, there's been no shortage of big games for either team,” he said. “When you look at them opening up, getting to play Florida State early in the year like they did, what a huge game that was. The Alabama game for them. Florida. You go through all these teams you play, and they're all big. Do I think experience matters? Yes. Big-game experience matters? Yes. Do both these teams have it? Yes.”No. 1 Georgia is playing for playoff seeding with their spot in the field all but secured.

The SEC title matters, too.

“It's an SEC Championship,” Smart said .”You don't belittle those. Those are hard to come by. They're what you do what you do for.”

LSU saw its playoff hopes come crashing down with a 38-23 loss to a Texas A&M team that was 1-6 in the SEC.

“Our guys know they let something slip away, and they're upset about it,” Kelly said. “I think they're anxious to go back out and play up to their standard, and that's the way I feel that they will play.”

Georgia nose guard Zion Logue put it this way: “Shoot, coming off a loss, a wounded Tiger is the most dangerous Tiger.”

LSU's surprising season reaches Atlanta

Eight different SEC teams received votes in the media preseason poll to win their divisions. LSU was not one of them. It wasn’t even much of a goal inside the program.

“Yeah, we didn't have a board in our team room that said, SEC West championship,” Kelly said. “Our board was about a standard and getting to that standard, building better habits, how we thought, how we prepared. It was much more about a process than it was for any particular goals.”

The Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the West ahead of only Mississippi State and Auburn.LSU went 5-5 and 6-7 the last two years, firing Ed Orgeron in October of 2021.

“I think it means a lot for LSU that we're competing for the SEC title because…we had an upsetting season last year, a coaching change, everybody just giving us no credit,” LSU running back Josh Williams said. “They had no expectations for us this season.”

Jayden Daniels, a transfer from Arizona State, has the second most rushing yards by an FBS quarterback with 824. He spearheaded back-to-back top 10 wins over Ole Miss and Alabama, throwing for 2 touchdowns in each game and rushing for 121 yards and 3 touchdowns against the Rebels and 95 and one score against the Crimson Tide.

“He can go into super quick, hyper speed mode, run away from you, run around you,” Smart said. “He stiff-arms guys. He's really athletic. But it's not like he's one of these guys that can't throw. …So the combination when you start saying, all right, what do I got to have to beat people in this league? It's an athletic quarterback that can beat you with his arm, and he's that.”

Daniels has 11 rushing touchdowns this season.

“We’re trying to not let him use his feet as much, try to make him sit in the pocket and get a cage around him,” Logue said.

Daniels was in a boot early this week with an ankle injury.

“That’s news to me,” Logue said. “We’re preparing like he’s going to be there on Saturday.”

LSU isn’t short on talent. It is No. 8 on the 247Sports team talent composite with 38 former 4 or 5 star players. Georgia has 67.

“They're really athletic,” Smart said. “I mean, LSU never is going to be short on players. The state, that area, high school football is so meaningful, and they do such a good job recruiting, that he's got some really talented guys, really talented players playing.

Can LSU run defense slow down Kenny McIntosh, Bulldogs?

LSU was gashed for its most rushing yards all season—274—in its upset loss at Texas A&M last week.Now they go up against a Georgia team that has leaned heavily on its ground game the last two weeks, rushing for 247 yards at Kentucky and 264 against Georgia Tech.

“They have a good offensive line, good size,” LSU linebacker Michah Baskerville said. “I see that they're physical. Our goal is to stop the run. We feel they're going to come out and run it on us because of last week. That's our challenge that we're going to have to stop so it doesn't happen back-to-back weeks.”

Georgia running back Kenny McIntosh has rushed for 412 yards and four touchdowns the last five games including 143 at Kentucky and 86 against Georgia Tech, averaging 7.4 yards per carry the last two weeks.

The senior is third on the team with 35 catches for 437 yards and a touchdown and had an 83-yard reception last week.

“He’s been good all year,” Smart said. “When he flips the switch and really starts going, he’s got great vision and great hands. He’s a weapon. I hate that he’s been a little banged up and beat up. He’s missed practice with a deep thigh bruise. He had two different ones. It’s like, man, can we lessen his load and lower the burden on him to try and keep him fresh.”

Kendall Milton started last week and has rushed for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns the last three games.Georgia rushed for 6.44 yards per carry last week—its second-best average of the season—with Tate Ratledge back at right guard after missing a game with a shoulder injury.

“He has a quality of toughness about him,” Smart said. “He plays really physical. I think Devin Willock does too. I think the guys that play at guard have all played really physical.”

Willock started for Ratledge at Kentucky and has been part of the offensive line rotation along with backups Amarius Mims and Warren Ericson.

“I think we finally jelled together and figured out how to work together as one unit,” offensive tackle Warren McClendon said. “Just communicating better on and off the field. At the beginning of the season, we weren’t running the ball how we wanted to. Towards the end of the season, we looked at ourselves and challenged ourselves we’ve got to step up and start running the ball like a Georgia offensive line runs the ball.”

Bulldogs aim to crank up the offense

Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken this week was named one of five finalists for the Broyles Award for nation’s top assistant coach. His offense is 7th in the nation in yards per play at 7.0 and eighth in total offense at 488.8 yards per game.

The Bulldogs have sputtered at time lately, averaging 406.3 yards per game the last four weeks and 12.0 points in the first half the last three games.

“You're trying to find the thing that makes you more consistent, but sometimes it's momentum in the flow of things, and when you get things flowing, you play better,” Smart said.

The red zone continues to be a focus with Georgia scoring touchdown on four of its last 10 red zone trips.“Ultimately, you'd better be able to move people,” Smart said. “You'd better be able to block people, and you've got to be able to make some plays at critical times. You can't beat yourself down there. We have been up and down at times, and we've been really, really good, and we've been pretty average at times.”

Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett has had his two lowest passing outputs of the season the last two games with 116 yards against Kentucky and 140 against Georgia Tech while completing 23 of 37 passes (62.2 percent).

“He's made a couple of decisions I think he would like to have back, but he's also made some really, really spectacular plays,” Smart said. “Sometimes when you put a lot on a player, you may get some of that. You may get a mistake. You may get something he wishes he had back. But he also had some really incredible plays.”Georgia has scored touchdowns on 5 of 18 drives the last two games.

“I think really when we get in our rhythm and we get going, that's probably when we're at our best football,” receiver Ladd McConkey said. “I feel like that's kind of for anybody. If you're having success and you're having fun out there, you're playing with confidence, that's when you're going to be your best. …Once we get that rhythm about us, I feel it’s hard to stop us.”

Containing LSU star freshman Harold Perkins

Getting Harold Perkins to join Brian Kelly’s first LSU recruiting class was an early win for the former Notre Dame coach.

The nation’s No. 8 overall prospect leads the Tigers in sacks with 6 ½ and tackles for loss with 10 and quarterback hurries with 13 and is third in tackles with 59.

“You know where he's at when he's out there, right?” Smart said. “They're going to use him in different ways. 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.”

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Perkins, born in New Orleans and played high school ball in Cypress, Texas, was a wrecking ball against Arkansas, with 8 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 forced fumbles.

“He is a bit of a throwback, and a throwback in this sense,” Kelly said. “Just tell me what I need to do. I don't need all the other things. And I'll figure it out as I go. It's kind of refreshing. …He doesn't need a lot of the whys. Just point me in the right direction; I'll figure it out. That's Harold Perkins. He knows he is not perfect, but he makes up for a lot of those things with his athletic ability.”

Perkins had a quiet game in the Texas A&M loss with 2 tackles.

“He's very, very talented,” Kelly said. “He's got to bring his traits and talent together. If he brings both of those, he is an elite and special player.”

Georgia also will have to contend with defensive end BJ Ojulari, brother of former Georgia outside linebacker Azeez Ojualri, who has 5 ½ sacks and 7 ½ tackles loss for the Tigers this season.

Georgia is tied for second in the nation in fewest sacks allowed with 7 total.

McClendon relishes the chance to go up against Perkins and Ojulari“That’s something I’m excited for this week,” he said.

This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Here are five things to know for Georgia-LSU in SEC championship game