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LSU safety JaCoby Stevens believes the Tigers could be hitting their stride defensively entering Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game against Georgia. / LSU photo by Gus Stark

ATHENS, Ga. — LSU's offense has been humming along nicely ever since the Tigers took a 42-3 halftime lead in their season opener against Georgia Southern.

Defensively, the Tigers may be saving their best for last.

LSU has surrendered more than 35 points on four occasions during its drive to the program's first 12-0 record and first appearance in the Southeastern Conference championship game since 2011. The top-ranked Tigers don't have near the statistical dominance defensively as No. 4 Georgia (11-1), the team they will face Saturday inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but they are coming off one whale of a show.

In last Saturday night's 50-7 humiliation of Texas A&M, the Tigers held the Aggies to 169 total yards and sacked Kellen Mond six times.

"That was a team we struggled with last year," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said this week. "For most of this season, our offense has been playing phenomenal, and now our defense has finally played the way I think they're capable of. I was proud of that, and I thought overall that it was probably our most complete game."

The Aggies arrived at Tiger Stadium coming off a 19-13 loss at Georgia, and they were looking to provide another down-to-the-wire test against one of the nation's elite teams. Instead, LSU built a 31-0 lead by the midway mark of the second quarter.

"When we do a self-assessment, we know that pass rushing is one of the things we struggle with," said LSU junior safety JaCoby Stevens, the former five-star prospect from Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. "As a team and as a defense, we got together and figured out how we can get better and what each position group needed to do for us to get better at our weaknesses.

"This past week, the leaders of that D-line and the front seven just stepped up. They affected the quarterback. That's a talented group up there, and hopefully they're catching a hot streak."

LSU has spent much of this season simply outscoring the opposition, whether that foe was inferior — such as the 66-38 win at Vanderbilt on Sept. 21 — or of equal par — most notably the 46-41 upset of Alabama. The definition of a defensive struggle for this season's Tigers was the 23-20 outlasting of Auburn on Oct. 26, and they followed their win at Alabama with a 58-37 track meet at Ole Miss.

The Tigers led the Rebels 31-7 at halftime before things got wacky, and LSU's whopping 714 total yards were nearly countered by the 614 by Ole Miss.

"They're playing better as a unit," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "They're rushing the passer. They had a lot of sacks the other night, and they had some packages on third down where they had linebackers rushing who are really athletic. They're playing with more of a purpose. They've played well in some big games, and I don't know where all the criticism comes from.

"The Ole Miss situation was unique to Ole Miss, because they're very different in what they do with the quarterback they have. That's not what everybody does."

Ah, the criticism.

LSU players have heard all season they were winning despite their defense, with such conversation carrying right up until last Saturday's kickoff. The week before whipping Texas A&M, the Tigers built a 56-6 lead on Arkansas midway through the fourth quarter before the Razorbacks scored two late touchdowns against their reserves.

The 13-member College Football Playoff committee then bumped LSU from No. 1 to No. 2, with committee chair Rob Mullens telling ESPN it was the "defensive piece" that put Ohio State in front of the Tigers.

"As a competitor, you take that as motivation," Stevens said. "You want to change that narrative, and I feel like we did that against Texas A&M. I feel like we still haven't played our best ball yet. We have some mistakes that we made defensive-wise on the field that we need to clean up, but that has definitely motivated us as a defense."

Said Orgeron: "We talk about blocking out the noise, and that's very important with all the information out there, but I do believe, without us mentioning it, that there is some internal motivation, and they want to definitely prove that they can be an outstanding defense. I do believe our best defensive games are yet to come."

A suddenly surging LSU defense will take on a Georgia offense that will be without top receiver Lawrence Cager and could have top running back D'Andre Swift either limited or very limited due to an injured shoulder. Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm was magnificent in last December's SEC championship loss to Alabama, but he will enter Saturday in the most erratic stretch of his career from an accuracy standpoint.

Georgia routed Georgia Tech 52-7 last weekend despite losing three fumbles, and the Bulldogs know they can't be as generous against the Tigers.

"The biggest thing they're doing is creating havoc, which is one of the things our defense preaches," Bulldogs senior receiver Tyler Simmons said. "They're wreaking havoc and producing negative plays and making turnovers, which is now giving their defense confidence going into every game."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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