I begin the only way it is appropriate to begin, by congratulating the 2011 SEC champion LSU Tigers. The Bayou Bengals are, far and away, the best team in college football, and they proved that today, as they have proved it in every game all season long. I will be cheering for Louisiana State in the BCS National Championship Game.
Now, to the matter of the game itself:
Twice this autumn, I have walked out of the Georgia Dome after watching the Georgia Bulldogs lose a football game, and, according to the final score, this was the worse of the two drubbings. Though the Tigers clearly were the better team---better than the Georgia team LSU faced on December 3; better than the Boise State team Georgia faced in the same building on September 3---this, to be blunt, wasn’t half the ass-whipping the Broncos put on the Bulldogs.
If you’d told me walking in the door that Georgia would hold a halftime lead, and that, over the course of 60 minutes of play, the Red and Black would lead in first downs (19-13), total yards (296-237), and time of possession (36:36-23:24), and that the ‘Dawgs would convert seven of 21 third downs while holding LSU to just one conversion in nine third-down attempts, well, I’d have told you Georgia would be bringing an SEC championship back to Athens.
Unfortunately, against a talented club that consistently plays efficient and mistake-free football, the Bulldogs had to play a perfect game, and they had to capitalize on the few opportunities the Tigers presented them. Georgia could not afford to turn the ball over three times without taking the ball away even once; Georgia could not afford to have the chances the Athenians made for themselves in the first half yet fail to take advantage of them, much in the same way the Red and Black did in the early going against Louisiana State in Baton Rouge in 2003.
Georgia entered the third quarter with the lead because the Bulldogs played a disciplined, aggressive first half of football that showed that the coaches and players came to Atlanta with the intention of winning a championship. The Red and Black’s glut of youth and dearth of depth were exposed in a second half in which the ‘Dawgs lost their composure and let the game get out of hand, but let’s give the Bayou Bengals their due: LSU is the No. 1 team in the country for a very good reason. This is, after all, the same outfit that beat one No. 3 team 40-27, another No. 3 team 41-17, a No. 16 team 47-21, a No. 17 team 41-11, and a No. 20 team 45-10. Beating a No. 14 team 42-10 is pretty much par for the course.
It should not be ignored, though, how far this team has come in the last three months. In the Georgia Dome on September 3, the Bulldogs never once looked like they belonged on the same field with the Boise St. Broncos. The Athenians’ opening drive consisted of a false start penalty, a two-yard run, a three-yard completion, another false start penalty, an incomplete pass, a delay of game penalty, and a Drew Butler punt on fourth and 20. At no time did the Red and Black appear competitive with Boise State.
The same cannot be said of the Bulldogs’ date with Louisiana State in the Georgia Dome on December 3. The Tigers went three and out on their first possession before the Classic City Canines drove 40 yards for a field goal, successfully executed an onside kick, moved the ball 24 yards, and missed a 45-yard field goal attempt after Malcolm Mitchell dropped a certain touchdown reception. LSU netted eleven yards and went three and out six times in the Pelican State Panthers’ next half-dozen possessions prior to intermission. Georgia spent a good portion of this game looking very much like the ‘Dawgs belonged with their opponent.
In the end, of course, Louisiana State was better, and better by quite a lot, though not by quite as much as the final score suggested; though the margin was wider, this was not even as lopsided a beating on the field as the 2003 SEC Championship Game. During his career as a college and professional quarterback, Mark Richt found himself playing behind Jim Kelly with the Miami Hurricanes, John Elway with the Denver Broncos, and Dan Marino with the Miami Dolphins. For all we know, Mark Richt was one of the 12 or 15 best quarterbacks ever; he just happened to be behind three of the six or seven all-time greatest.
By the same token, we know Georgia isn’t as good as the No. 1 team in the country, and, given the closeness of the Alabama Crimson Tide’s regular-season meeting with the Bayou Bengals, we know Georgia isn’t as good as the No. 2 team in the country. Given the ways in which LSU took out two No. 3 teams over the course of the campaign, though, I’m not prepared to concede that these Bulldogs aren’t as good as any team in the country outside of Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa.
At the end of the day, a young team grew up a lot over the course of three months. As it turned out, they didn’t grow up enough, and they didn’t grow up as much as we’d hoped, but they came a long way, and they did so more quickly than any of us would’ve anticipated on Labor Day. That is why I choose to look at the first half and say the glass is half-full, rather than to look at the second half and say the glass is half-empty.
If anything, this team was ahead of schedule. This team will be back in this building twelve months hence, quite possibly against the same opponent, and, next time, I like the Bulldogs’ chances. In their last 660 minutes of football, the Red and Black have played well enough to win for 630 of them; an argument might be mounted for the proposition that those numbers should be 720 and 690 instead, but the point is that no one who does not spend a significant amount of time in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall thought Georgia even had a chance to be here, much less to play toe-to-toe with the Tigers for 30 minutes. That’s how close this team is to finishing the drill at the highest level. Considering where this team was a year ago, I’ll take it.