By Paul Newberry/The Associated Press
ATLANTA — Given little chance to knock off the nation’s top-ranked team, Georgia doesn’t have a lot to lose in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Then again, No. 1 LSU probably doesn’t either.
In all likelihood, the Tigers have already put together a resume that’s impressive enough to get them to New Orleans for the BCS title game — even if the 12th-ranked Bulldogs pull off a huge upset Saturday.
Count Georgia coach Mark Richt among those who feels LSU (12-0, 8-0 SEC) deserves to play for the national championship, whether they win or lose to his team. He can certainly read a schedule, noting the Tigers have already beaten three teams among the top eight in The Associated Press poll — No. 2 Alabama, No. 6 Arkansas and No. 8 Oregon — as well as 22nd-ranked West Virginia.
“If you look at all the one-loss teams and if, in fact, they became a one-loss team, just look at who they played,” Richt said Friday. “I would think they’d be a shoe-in to play (for the national title). I know that’s not what they’re focusing on, because you don’t go 12-0 unless you can focus on every game.”
LSU’s Les Miles, whose team is a two-touchdown favorite, refused to get dragged into the debate. No need to, really, since he’s coaching the last unbeaten team from one of the major conferences.
To some, this game is just an afterthought, something the Tigers must get out of the way before they get on with their rematch against SEC West rival Alabama for an even bigger crown. Miles doesn’t see if that way.
“I do know that’s an issue for other folks,” he said. “It’s not one for us. We’re very, very focused on the next game and a very quality Georgia opponent.”
Indeed, there’s a sense this team wants a national title that includes no ifs, ands or buts. In 2003, LSU defeated Oklahoma for the BCS title but Southern Cal was voted No. 1 in the AP poll. Four years later, the Tigers became the first two-loss team to win it all, getting plenty of help from other schools along the way.
This time, it’s all in their hands.
“We’ve talked about it several times, but not about the what ifs,” Miles said. “It’s all about what we’ve accomplished to this point. We’ve put ourselves in position to play a championship game. That’s this Saturday against a very, very talented Georgia team. I promise you, our football team understands that.”
Georgia (10-2, 7-1) might be the hottest team in the country outside of LSU. The Bulldogs have bounced back from an 0-2 start with their longest in-season winning streak since 1982, removing any doubt about Richt’s coaching future. But their schedule hasn’t been nearly as tough as the Tigers’ because of a quirk in the rotation that allowed them to avoid all three of the top teams in the SEC West.
Still, given the pressure his program was under coming off its first losing mark in 14 years and then dropping its first two games, Richt and his staff have engineered an impressive turnaround that bodes well for the future, given the youth of the team (only five starters are seniors).
“We’ve had a lot of really special times with this team,” Richt said. “I’ve enjoyed it maybe as much as any team I’ve coached.”
Georgia has one of the nation’s most accomplished quarterbacks in Aaron Murray, who’s set a school record with 32 touchdown passes. The tailback position is another story.
Freshman Isaiah Crowell missed the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech with an injured left ankle and he’s already been involved in at least two disciplinary issues, including a failed drug test that led to a one-game suspension. But Crowell practiced this week and was with the team when it turned up at the Georgia Dome for a light walk-through Friday.
His top backup, Richard Samuel, has missed the last four games after undergoing ankle surgery and it’s not known if he’s recovered enough to play against the Tigers. Georgia was so desperate for runners last week that two defensive backs, Branden Smith and Brandon Boykins, got extensive time on the offensive side. The Bulldogs have also pressed into service former walk-on Brandon Harton, who’s only 5-foot-6 and 174 pounds.
Richt has been coy about the situation all week, and that stance didn’t change on the eve of the game.
“I’m not telling,” he said, chuckling. “We’ll wait. A game-day decision. How about that one? That’s a good one.”
LSU had no such concerns. For the first time in school history, the Tigers have four backs with at least six rushing touchdowns, and all figure to touch the ball Saturday. Spencer Ware (687 yards) will get the start, but he’s got plenty of help with Michael Ford (721), Alfred Blue (445) and freshman Kenny Hilliard (248).
“It helps to wear down a defense,” offensive lineman Will Blackwell said. “Our guys don’t get as tired. We’ve got fresh legs here at the end of the season. We’ve got three, four, maybe five guys that can all run the ball and run it hard. The main thing, the best thing for us is we don’t have to put the whole load on one guy. When one of those guys comes in, he can just pound it as much as he can and look forward to getting a little break.”
That, in turn, has helped bolster the passing game. Jordan Jefferson took over from Jarrett Lee in the first 1-2 showdown with Alabama and rallied the Tigers to an overtime win. Over the final three games of the regular season, Jefferson completed 33 of 50 passes (66 percent) for 464 yards, with three touchdowns and only one interception. Plus, he gives LSU another running threat (253 yards, three TDs) when he tucks it under his arm.
“You’ve got to be able to run the ball to throw the ball,” Blackwell said. “That’s the philosophy we’ve taken on this season.”
Georgia just took ’em one at a time, especially when it dug that early hole. Every SEC contest was, in essence, an elimination game. The Bulldogs passed every test, most notably rallying from a 14-point deficit to beat perennial nemesis Florida.
“From there on out, we were a team that felt, hey, no matter what goes on, no matter what happens, we’re going to keep fighting and win out,” Murray said.
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