Unexpected guest, LSU crashes SEC Championship Game

Published 8:24 am Saturday, December 3, 2022

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ATLANTA — LSU wasn’t supposed to be here, not anywhere near Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the Southeastern Conference Championship game.

Yet the Tigers still say they have something to prove.

Georgia, on the other hand, was penciled in all along as the defending national champion and ranked No. 1 virtually all season.

But the Bulldogs still feel like they left something behind here.

That’s the basic scenario today when upstart LSU (9-3) faces Georgia (12-0) for a conference trophy that will have to suffice for motivation.

It pits a veteran program in Georgia that has been able to seamlessly reload its championship team by traditional means against an LSU team that first-year head coach Brian Kelly had to piecemeal together by hook, crook and mostly transfer portal.

But both teams seem to think they have plenty to play for.

“Winning the SEC is hard,” Kelly said. “Really hard.”

So hard that Kelly didn’t even bother putting “SEC Championship” on the board listing goals in the Tigers’ team room before the season.

“I’d be lying if I told you that was one of them or wasn’t one of them,” he said. “It really wasn’t even part of our thought process.

“Our board was about a standard and getting to that standard, building better habits, how we thought, how we prepared … more than it was for any particular goals.”

But that quick buy-in from the Tigers is probably what has them here, well ahead of schedule, two days beyond exactly a year to the day Kelly was introduced as head coach of a program that had gone 6-7 in the two years since winning the 2019 national championship undefeated.

“Our guys did a great job of playing their very best when their best was needed,” Kelly said. “Now we get an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country.”

There was a notable exception. And today’s game could have been for much more if not for the buzzkill against Texas A&M last week that took the CFP off the table.

“Our players know it. They took it hard after the game,” Kelly said. “They care. They really want to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again.

“We can get beat, but we don’t want to be beat without bringing our very best. Unfortunately it’s one of those lessons to be learned in terms of how you need to prepare each and every week.”

An SEC championship trophy would soothe a lot of that disappointment.

Just ask Georgia. The SEC hardware is about the only thing the Bulldogs haven’t won in the last two years.

They lost here last year to Alabama, 41-24, before getting the last laugh with a rematch victory in the national championship game.

But it didn’t sit right with the Bulldogs that the SEC trophy slipped away.

“It’s an SEC championship,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “You don’t belittle those. Those are so hard to come by.

“I’ve been part of this league for a long time. I have almost as many national championships as I do SEC championships. They’re really hard to come by.”