Two teams that shared college football's spotlight on the first Saturday night in September will share the same goal this week at the Georgia Dome.
Georgia and LSU will vie in the Southeastern Conference championship game for the third time in nine years Saturday in Atlanta. Each team opened this season in marquee matchups, with LSU stating an early case for the top spot with a 40-27 victory over Oregon in Dallas but with Georgia stumbling in a 35-21 loss to Boise State at the same locale the Bulldogs will visit again this week.
"I know they started slowly, but they got it in gear," LSU coach Les Miles said Sunday.
The No. 1 Tigers are 12-0 with 11 victories by 13 or more points, with the lone exception being their memorable 9-6 overtime defeat of Alabama on Nov. 5. The No. 12 Bulldogs are 10-2 with 10 straight wins, and they defeated New Mexico State, Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia Tech down the stretch by the combined count of 158-50.
LSU is coming off a 41-17 thrashing of No. 3 Arkansas this past Friday.
"We've been fighting and scratching all year long to be in this position," Bulldogs outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said after Saturday's 31-17 win over the Yellow Jackets. "Now, we've just got to stay focused and humbled and keep playing ball. LSU is a great team in all phases of the game, so we've got to give it everything we've got and leave everything out there."
Said Georgia center Ben Jones: "You don't have to hype anything up. You know what's coming at you. We've got to put in extra time at practice and extra time in the film room to do whatever we can to beat these guys."
LSU thumped Georgia 34-13 in the 2003 SEC title game, but the Bulldogs returned the favor in the '05 matchup with a 34-14 romp. The Tigers and Bulldogs finished 1-2 nationally after the '07 season, when LSU won its second national title in five years, but each program then took a dip.
The Tigers plummeted to 8-5 in 2008, allowing 30 or more points five times, and produced a mild rebound in '09 by going 9-4. They went 8-8 in league play those two years, getting swept by Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss.
"I think that there is an issue that takes place after you've won a national championship," Miles said. "It's one of those things that as a coach I probably did a very poor job managing it. There is an entitlement and a want and an expected to -- all those things that really take away from your competitiveness, and I think there is a piece that happens there that I didn't do a great job with."
LSU appeared headed for a third straight shaky year last season with fortunate victories over North Carolina and Tennessee, but the Tigers stunned Alabama and routed Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl to wind up 11-2.
"Last year, I could tell that our football team was really, really catching speed," Miles said. "The youth of the secondary was evaporating, and the experience and the good plays and the confidence were coming of age. As we got to midseason, I felt like we were really strong in the secondary even though we were playing freshmen.
"As we went through the back end of last year, we felt like we were going to have a very good fall this fall."
Georgia started out the '08 season ranked No. 1 but wound up 10-3. The Bulldogs continued their slide in '09 with an 8-5 season, which culminated in the Independence Bowl, and a 6-7 mark last year that was sealed with a 10-6 Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida.
The Bulldogs bounced back by capturing their seventh 10-win season in Mark Richt's 11 years. Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray leads the SEC in efficiency and Georgia ranks fifth nationally in total defense, but Richt believes reasons for improvement are widespread.
"I think it's just been taking care of business in the offseason, getting bigger, stronger and faster, and getting better at what we do defensively," he said. "Our offensive line, even though we didn't have a lot of depth this year, stayed healthy and got better as we went. We were a team that needed to improve throughout the year, and I think we have improved.
"I don't know to what level, but we're a lot better from where we started this year."
Odds and Ends
When asked about three players battling ankle injuries, Richt said he hoped tailback Isaiah Crowell could practice today but was not as confident about tailback Richard Samuel and defensive end DeAngelo Tyson. ... LSU leads the all-time series with Georgia, 15-12-1. ... Former Bulldogs offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Neil Callaway was fired Sunday after going 3-9 in his fifth season as UAB's head coach.