Georgia won’t sleep on LSU, despite being heavily favored

CAN DANIELS DANCE?:  After twisting an ankle at Texas A&M, LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels’ mobility will be a pivotal factor Saturday afternoon in the SEC Championship Game. (Photo by PETER FOREST, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

ATLANTA – Georgia coach Kirby Smart wasn’t a man of many words after he took the podium at the Southeastern Conference Championship Game press conference Thursday.

There was a buffet of questions that varied from transfer portal expectations, to snap count monitoring, to his history with LSU coach Brian Kelly. Smart was efficient in his replies.

When Smart was finally quizzed about No. 11 LSU, the Bulldogs’ surprising foe in the 3 p.m. game Saturday, he was clear and concise.

“They’ve got a lot of talent, a lot of really fast, athletic players,” Smart said. “When you look across the skill level of both sides of the ball for them, they’ve got great size and great speed. They’ve got one of the most physical offensive lines we’ve played. They’re really, really talented in the red zone defensively and red zone offensively, which we worked on hard yesterday, and on third down as well. They don’t get in many third-and-long situations.”

The unbeaten (12-0) defending national champions enter Saturday’s contest as the No. 1 team in the country, the heavy favorite (by 17.5 points) over a three-loss (9-3) LSU squad. Smart said it won’t be a gimme by any means, especially with the return of a healthy Jayden Daniels. The biggest question looming around the Tigers has been the status of their versatile and productive quarterback, who suffered an ankle sprain last week in the 38-23 upset loss at Texas A&M. Kelly eased those fears in his press conference Thursday.

“He’s going to be good,” Kelly said about Daniels’ availability. “He had a good week of practice, and he’ll play for us on Saturday.”

Smart has positioned Georgia as one of the nation’s premier defenses year in and year out, and this season’s squad has proved no different: The Bulldogs rank fourth in the NCAA with just 270 yards of offense allowed per game, and have allowed just 13 touchdowns to opposing offenses, the fewest in the nation.

The Tigers haven’t faced a defense of similar credentials and stature all season: Alabama’s 25 touchdowns and 311 yards allowed-per-game put them a distant second among teams on LSU’s schedule.

“We’re going to play a physical football team that has the style of its head coach,” Kelly said. “They’re going to play great defense, they’re going to be physical on both sides of the ball. That’s the nature of a well-coached football team that’s won a national championship and is competing for another. You know what you’re going to get here.”

While the defense has drawn most of the attention, Georgia’s offense last year found an unlikely leader in quarterback Stetson Bennett, who led the Bulldogs to the national title last season after earning the job over the presumptive starter, USC transfer JT Daniels. The 25-year-old Georgia native has become a focal point for an offense that’s quietly put together a Top-10 statistical campaign with 55 total touchdowns and 488 yards of offense per game.

Smart knows the keys to the locker room belong to his team leaders — Bennett being one of them — and that’s what he wants. It delivered a national title last year, and set his team up nicely to defend that title this season.

“Any good team is going to be player-led. I don’t know a good team that’s not player-led,” Smart said. “There’s probably some bad teams that wish they had better leaders as players, but the good teams I’ve been able to be a part of, they’re all player-led. That’s how a coach should want it. If you do your job, the players should follow the directive to lead the other guys.”

There are no guarantees in the SEC, but if the LSU team that shined in midseason appears, Saturday could provide a riveting third chapter in the story between Kelly and Smart. Smart leads the series between the two at 2-0, but Kelly hopes to spoil that burgeoning streak in their first matchup since he took the head coaching job at LSU a year ago.

“They’re really good and well-coached,” Kelly said of his past run-ins with Smart’s teams. “Good players, very competitive games. One of them was home, one of them was away, and they were great atmospheres. It’s just really good college football. Look, it’s going to be a really similar situation.”

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com