LSU makes case as No. 1 while massive upset shakes up SEC picture

It’s time to survey the Southeastern Conference with fresh eyes. The preseason expectations have undergone a significant alteration.

What was supposed to be another Alabama-Georgia party in the SEC championship game in the Georgia Dome could now be a repeat of the game we saw Saturday night in Baton Rouge: Florida-LSU.

Yes, the Tigers are facing a trip to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 9 to face a Crimson Tide program they have lost to eight straight times. And yes, the Gators must handle a neutral-field game against Georgia, which has won the last two meetings by a combined 54 points — not to mention 5-1 Missouri, which somehow has routed Florida two straight years.

But these are the two teams that have proved the most thus far, and have played the best football. Not the Crimson Tide, with its leaky defense. And not the Bulldogs, whose lackadaisical starts caught up with them Saturday in a seismic upset.

In beating Florida 42-28 in Tiger Stadium, LSU staked its claim to being ranked No. 1. It won’t happen, because pollsters are incapable of the flexible thinking necessary to jump a team from No. 5 to the top of the polls. But what other undefeated team has two victories as good as the Tigers, who paired this defeat of the Gators with their road win over Texas on Sept. 7?

The current No. 1, Alabama, has played an undistinguished schedule. The current No. 2, Clemson, has played an even weaker schedule. The current No. 3, Ohio State, has its best victory to date over Cincinnati. The current No. 4, Georgia, just lost.

LSU, meanwhile, has become the most powerful offensive force in America. The Tigers have scored more than 40 points in every game — and the 42 they hung on Florida were the most the Gators have allowed since 2016. This was a Florida team that entered the game giving up just 9.5 points per game, sixth-best in the nation, and that defense was lit up for 511 yards by a balanced LSU attack.

LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) looks to pass against Florida Gators on October 12, 2019 at the Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA. (Getty)
LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow (9) looks to pass against Florida Gators on October 12, 2019 at the Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA. (Getty)

The Joe Burrow Show will be a problem for Alabama, which has been forced to play a lot of young people on the defensive side due to injuries. In three SEC games, the Crimson Tide is surrendering 27.3 points and 441 yards, absolutely unheard-of numbers under Nick Saban. As of today, the LSU offense vs. Alabama defense looks like a mismatch in favor of Ed Orgeron’s team.

Despite the loss, give credit to Florida for pushing LSU into the final minutes on the road despite plenty of injuries of its own. Even with backup quarterback Kyle Trask in the lineup, the Gators have been a pretty proficient offensive team. Given what we’ve seen from Georgia thus far, Florida looks thoroughly capable of winning when the two face off in Jacksonville on Nov. 2.

The Bulldogs were on the wrong end of the biggest upset of the season to date, a double-overtime fold against South Carolina. It also was the biggest win of embattled Will Muschamp’s career.

Perhaps this was Georgia’s annual Hairball Classic, an SEC game in which they do just as many things wrong as possible. In 2017, the favored Bulldogs were routed by Auburn, 40-17. Last year, the favored Bulldogs were splattered by LSU, 36-16.

The difference this time? Georgia was at home, and Georgia was playing a South Carolina team that had played quite badly this season.

The Bulldogs were a minus-four turnover margin, with Jake Fromm throwing his first three interceptions of the season — one of which was returned for a touchdown — and the defense producing zero takeaways. The last time they were a minus-four in a game was the loss in Baton Rouge 364 days ago.

This also was the third straight game Georgia started sluggishly, and this time it didn’t recover. The Bulldogs trailed Notre Dame 10-7 at halftime, trailed Tennessee 14-10 in the second quarter, and trailed the Gamecocks 17-10 at intermission Saturday.

The game was tied at 17 in the final seconds when Kirby Smart elected against a 55-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship, who has made a kick from that distance and had been the best kicker in the nation prior to Saturday. Georgia tried to nudge the ball a little closer and instead went backward, drawing a five-yard penalty that forced an unsuccessful Hail Mary play instead of attempting the winning kick.

In the second overtime, Blankenship missed from 42 yards out to try and force a third OT. That gave the win to South Carolina, ending Georgia’s SEC East winning streak at 13 games.

Given the results Saturday, the SEC West showdown between LSU and Alabama now looms as something approaching a College Football Playoff win-and-you’re-in game. And the SEC East showdown between Georgia and Florida is almost certainly a playoff eliminator.

As of today, it’s conceivable that LSU and Florida might both be the best teams in their respective divisions, for the first time in years and contrary to preseason expectations.

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