LSU pushes Georgia out of College Football Playoff picture, re-establishes itself as an SEC bully

BATON ROUGE, La. – The primal roar at LSU‘s Tiger Stadium unleashes from the 102,321 fans as equal parts hope, desperation and Crown Royal, a rumbling cocktail of volatility and impatience that’s bubbled up through years of mediocre football. In Death Valley, only optimism has been laid to rest recently. It’s been five years since LSU’s last 10-win season, seven years since the last SEC title and 11 years since it won the national title. In most recent Octobers, national relevance has been iced alongside the Abita in the parking lot coolers.

Over that time, LSU’s loyal fans have seen Alabama launch a dynasty, Les Miles sputter through his final seasons and enough uninspired offense to make billionaires of the liquor distributors in East Baton Rouge Parish.

Hope re-emerged in a full-frontal force on Saturday, as No. 13 LSU cold-cocked No. 2 Georgia, 36-16. LSU didn’t just beat a top-two team for the first time since the epic 9-6 overtime victory at Alabama in 2011. LSU took a sledgehammer to Georgia‘s pride, exposing their lack of physicality, extreme youth and play calling that offered less sophistication than “Tecmo Bowl.” In 60 minutes of smashmouth football, LSU re-emerged as an SEC bully.

“I grew up watching LSU football,” coach Ed Orgeron said after the game. “You could feel it walking down the Tiger Walk. You could just feel it all week [that] this was going to be one of those games for the LSU Tigers.”

This LSU victory came straight from the desperate souls of Death Valley and manifested itself in a throaty roar that doubled as an exorcism of mediocrity. There was the embattled Orgeron, going 4-for-4 on fourth-down gambles, tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire leading a rushing attack that went for 275 yards and quarterback Joe Burrow playing mistake-free point guard under center. And it all poured out onto Tiger Stadium at the end, as the student section emptied like a gold waterfall onto the grass and transformed into a dancing mosh pit.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron celebrates a score against Georgia during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
LSU coach Ed Orgeron celebrates a score against Georgia during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Suddenly, with LSU’s next two games against No. 24 Mississippi State and on Nov. 3 against No. 1 Alabama here in Baton Rouge, the road to the SEC title, College Football Playoff and national title runs through college football’s most passionate den. LSU (6-1) has one loss – at Florida last week – but the ultimate home-field advantage for its most critical games.

This all comes at the expense of Georgia, which saw its hopes of returning to the College Football Playoff flutter into oblivion like so many Jake Fromm passes. Way too many Jake Fromm passes, to be more precise. Sure, Georgia can mathematically still win the SEC. But anyone who saw this game witnessed a team that suddenly looks vulnerable to win the SEC East. Some of the wounds were self-inflicted, as Georgia’s pass-happy play calling defied common sense and Kirby Smart’s hesitancy to change up quarterbacks was baffling. (Didn’t he learn anything from Nick Saban’s savvy move in the national title game last year?)

Georgia’s lack of fundamentals – tackling, catching the ball, situational awareness – were alarming. But Smart admitted his biggest concern doubled as the day’s most prominent theme – LSU pushing Georgia all around the sandlot. “That’s the most concerning part,” Smart said, when asked about his team getting outworked physically. “Look guys, we didn’t play real physical at Missouri. Vanderbilt ran the ball on us. This [didn’t just] pop up out of the ground.”

As Georgia flailed amid a flawed game plan filled with too many passes from coordinator Jim Chaney, LSU’s dominance kicked off a decadent night that will be a precursor for two more marquee home games here the next three weeks. LSU is far from a perfect team. Burrow (15-for-30 passing) is still more of a gamer than a star, the defensive line doesn’t have the dogs of past iterations and the offensive line could end up vulnerable against both Mississippi State next week (nation’s No. 1 defense) and Alabama. But the defining snapshots of this game came from Devin White leading gang-tackles in the box, Greedy Williams talking smack loud enough to hear in the press box and Georgia getting methodically pounded into self-destruction. They shook a roster that’s the youngest in the SEC – 68.5 percent freshman and sophomores – and left them in the fetal position by the end of the game. (See Mecole Hardman‘s fumble on a kick return in the fourth quarter.)

No one looked more rattled than Fromm, who got hit and chased and sacked so many times he looked spooked, as he spent much of the afternoon with his happy feet running backward. He finished the day 16-for-34 with two interceptions, the worst game of his career by a country mile. Fromm cemented that inglorious low point by taking a fourth-quarter sack that pushed Georgia out of field goal range early in the fourth quarter that sucked the last vapors out of Georgia’s half-hearted comeback. Fromm has gone from the epitome of a cool customer and an unflappable freshman to a potential figure in a quarterback controversy.

With Georgia entering a bye week, there will be a fortnight of wondering in Athens about why Smart wasn’t more willing to play backup quarterback Justin Fields, the top dual-threat quarterback in the country who had a handful of sporadic snaps but never a drive of his own. Smart danced around direct questions about the quarterback situation and abandoning the run game. Talented tailbacks D’Andre Swift (12 carries for 72 yards) and Elijah Holyfield (seven for 56) were both effective and distinctly underutilized. Smart acknowledged second guessing in three different answers and summed up 6-1 Georgia this way: “We have not gotten out of this team what we should get out of them. And that’s on me as the leader and us as the coaches.”

Let’s be honest here. Few coaches in the country are less respected as strategists than Orgeron. His Hummer commercials, affinity for Red Bull and penchant for catchphrases – “One Heartbeat” – have niched him as a coach who provides relentless recruiting, energy and motivation. But there’s little regard for his football acumen in both the media and coaching industry. Heck, LSU pays defensive coordinator Dave Aranda $2.5 million dollars, and Orgeron comes from a defensive background. But on Saturday, no one can argue that Smart, the precocious Nick Saban prodigy, left Tiger Stadium having gotten outcoached. A trail of questions about Georgia’s offensive game plan, toughness and a bone-headed fake field goal will hover in Athens.

Meanwhile, LSU’s national paradigm has been completely transformed. One season after losing to Troy, getting blown out by Mississippi State and getting knocked around by Alabama, LSU has shown enough fight to be considered a legitimate College Football Playoff contender. The Tigers pushed Georgia around like it was a directional Louisiana school.

And as the fans posed for their final on-field selfies, they disappeared into a celebration of something rare in these parts recently – high-stakes games late in the fall at Tiger Stadium. “Great crowd, great LSU football,” Orgeron said. “And that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Someone warn the East Baton Rouge Parish liquor distributors that they’ll be working overtime the next few weeks. The exorcism of mediocrity is complete, and the party appears to be just getting started.

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