ATHENS, Ga. — LSU quarterback Joe Burrow is on an amazing run of first impressions.
After losing to Dwayne Haskins in the race to become Ohio State's starting quarterback during the 2018 spring practices, Burrow decided to leave the Buckeyes and had LSU among his transfer possibilities. Burrow was an intriguing possibility for LSU coach Ed Orgeron, because he was a graduate transfer with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
"He didn't want a lot of recruiting jargon," Orgeron recalled this week. "He came here, and it was a business trip. We had about a three- or four-hour meeting, and there were five people in that meeting, including me. Joe was the smartest guy in there. I was very impressed with his knowledge of football, the way he could verbalize what he saw on the film, and what he wanted to get done.
"He saw what type of plan that we had for him and expressed the things that he liked and the things that he didn't. I thought it was a tremendous meeting."
Burrow helped guide LSU to a 10-win season last year that was capped by a 40-32 topping of Central Florida in the Fiesta Bowl, and he has led the top-ranked Tigers to a 12-0 regular season as a fifth-year senior and a berth in Saturday afternoon's Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 4 Georgia (11-1).
This will not be Burrow's first impression on Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart, with the 6-foot-4, 216-pounder having guided LSU to 475 total yards in last season's 36-16 trampling of Georgia in Baton Rouge.
"He's a tremendous athlete," Smart said. "He's got balance, body control and pocket awareness, and when you wrap all those things together, it makes him a combination of probably one of the best quarterbacks that I've seen. I've seen guys who can run, tons of them, but very few who keep their eyes downfield like he does.
"He's calm in the pocket. He extends plays. When you think you've got everything done right, he breaks tackles."
Burrow will enter Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the clear-cut favorite for the Heisman Trophy, having set an SEC single-season passing record with 4,366 yards and having tied the league mark of 44 touchdown tosses set by former Missouri quarterback Drew Lock in 2017. His 78.3% completion rate is on track to break the NCAA single-season standard of 76.7% set by Colt McCoy of Texas in 2008.
With Burrow at the controls, LSU has set single-season school records for yards (6,725) and points (584) with at least two contests remaining, and the Tigers possess two 1,000-yard receivers — Ja'Marr Chase (1,457) and Justin Jefferson (1,092) — as well as 1,000-yard rusher Clyde Edwards-Helaire (1,233).
"I think the concepts and things we're doing really kind of utilize all the weapons we have on offense more so than last year," Burrow said. "We're doing some of the same things we did last year, but obviously everyone has seen that it's quite different. We're really utilizing the weapons we have on the outside and getting people in space and trying to make defenses make one-on-one plays."
The upgrade in LSU's offense has been credited to Orgeron's hiring of receivers coach and passing-game coordinator Joe Brady, who came over from the New Orleans Saints.
"One of my best friends from Ohio State, J.T. Barrett, was on the Saints practice squad last year with Coach Joe," Burrow said. "J.T. called me and told me I was going to love this guy and that we were going to be best friends. That's exactly how it's turned out to be."
Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa was the Heisman favorite entering last December's SEC title game, but Georgia's defense forced him into a 10-of-25, two-interception showing that resulted in former Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray claiming college football's top individual honor. Jalen Hurts replaced Tagovailoa and helped the Crimson Tide rally for a 35-28 victory, but Bulldogs defenders realize they are in a similar situation this week.
Georgia leads the SEC in fewest yards (257.0) and fewest points (10.4) allowed per game, and slowing LSU begins with slowing Burrow.
"You've definitely got to wrap him up and bring him all the way down to the ground and finish the play," redshirt freshman outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari said. "He's elusive and can make plays out of nothing. We've got bring it on. It will be a great challenge, and it will be an opportunity to show the world what we can do."
Said senior defensive tackle Michael Barnett: "They're a good offense, and they're going to make plays, but we need to make plays on defense as well. At this point, we've just got to execute better than they do."
The biggest stage of Burrow's career to this point occurred last month inside Alabama's Bryant-Denny Stadium, when he guided the Tigers to a 46-41 upset by completing 31 of 39 passes for 393 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed 14 times for 64 yards, averaging nearly five yards a carry.
This Saturday provides another monstrous spotlight for Burrow, who has completed at least 71.1% of his passes in every game this season.
"When I envision myself, I envision myself on a stage like this," Burrow said. "I don't know that I envisioned myself in Louisiana at LSU, but this is what I've always dreamed of. It's never been my dream to play in the NFL. I've wanted to play in games like this — SEC or Big Ten championship games, and national title games."
Smart offered an update on junior running back D'Andre Swift and his shoulder injury in a news conference following Tuesday's practice.
"He's been out there doing what we've asked him to do," Smart said. "He's practicing. He's banged-up and it's tough, but he's a warrior and a fighter. We're expecting him to be able to go."
Smart added that Swift has been dealing with a banged-up shoulder most of the year and that it bothered him throughout Saturday's 52-7 win at Georgia Tech.
The Bulldogs are only 1-2 against LSU in SEC championship games, but Smart was in his one season as Georgia's running backs coach when the 2005 Bulldogs thumped the Tigers 34-14 inside the Georgia Dome.
"That was the pinnacle of my career at that point," Smart said, "because I had never been in an SEC championship and never really even been close to one. To win one was pretty special."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.