No underscoring significance for LSU to win SEC Championship Game over Georgia

LSU coach Brian Kelly has Tigers in Saturday's SEC Championship Game in his first season. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

LSU last won the Southeastern Conference Championship game three years ago. Before that, you have to go back to 2011 to find the last time the Tigers accomplish the feat.

LSU coach Brian Kelly relishes such an opportunity, that in his first year, he’s bringing the No. 11 Tigers (9-3) to Atlanta to face No. 1 and defending national champion Georgia (12-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The game will be televised by CBS and broadcast locally on 98.1-FM.

“Yeah, I think it would be something that we would all feel great about in our first year here at LSU, but I think overall it’s hard to win SEC Championships. It’s so hard,” Kelly said Monday during his weekly news conference. “There’s so many good teams. We’ve just talked about how you have to play week to week in the regular season, but to get there and then win it all.

“That’s why somebody asked me (Sunday) yesterday about what do you think if they expand the playoffs, that an SEC Championship would be devalued,” Kelly added. “I said, absolutely not; you don’t know what you have to go through to actually get here, and that’s why I think it would never be devalued and would be such a huge thing for this football program.”

Kelly’s navigated LSU on an unlikely path to Atlanta where the Tigers last defeated Georgia, 37-10, en route to a perfect 15-0 record and national championship in 2019.

The Tigers have won the event 12 times in school history. They won the event in back-to-back years in 1935-36 and then went 22 years until claiming the 1958 title.

This season LSU, which was unranked to begin the season, was predicted to finish fifth in the SEC’s Western Division. The Tigers secured the SEC West title following a 13-10 road win over Arkansas and wound up with a 6-2 record after Saturday’s 38-23 loss at Texas A&M.

Here’s what else Kelly said:

(Opening statement)

“Obviously it’s exciting to be able to play for a conference championship. We certainly feel like we’ve earned the opportunity to be here by the play on the field, and we’re excited about the opportunity to represent SEC West and playing the No. 1 team in the country. Georgia has proven themselves to be the best team, and we’re excited about that challenge. We know it’s going to be a tough challenge, but we’re certainly up for this chance to win the SEC. That’s what you play it for. I know our guys are excited about it. Again, it’s an outstanding football team. There’s so many superlatives, whether you go on offense and talk about Stetson Bennett or you go defensively and you talk about some of the biggest defensive linemen and most active linebackers with (Jamon Dumas) Johnson and certainly inside with (Jalen) Carter and (Robert) Beal. This is just a well-coached, consistent football team. But our guys have had the opportunity to play the best, and this is another opportunity for us to be challenged. We’re excited about the opportunity.”

Injury update on LSU cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse? Performance this year of secondary?

“He will practice on Tuesday (non-contact). If he gets through that non-contact practice, then he’ll be fully cleared, so we’re expecting that he’ll be back for us. I think our guys have done a really good job. Putting together a secondary when you didn’t have one is not where you want to be, and I thought that they’ve really hung in there all year. We’ve used a number of guys at that position to hold it down, and obviously the latest with Jay Ward playing the corner, and he played really well. Really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to move new players into those positions and obviously get us to the SEC West Championship.”

Injury update on quarterback Jayden Daniels?

“He’s been evaluated. He’s in a walking boot. We’ll keep him in that boot today, and then tomorrow he’ll go in for his exam. Really this is about strength. He’ll run with no obvious force and keep him conditioned even through today, which is weight training and film study day. Tomorrow he’ll go through a manual exam where effectively he’s got to be able to get up on his toes. If he’s able to do that, then we’re ready to go for Tuesday.”

On bounce back last week from John Emery Jr.?

“I think it’s pretty well chronicled that our depth at the running back position is not where it needs to be. We’ve got to be very careful. You’ve got to make sure that John understands that look, you can’t continue to put the ball on the ground, but yet on the other hand, we can’t put him on the shelf because he’s got to help us. I thought he handled himself pretty good. I think (running backs) Coach (Frank) Wilson has done a great job of dealing with him in terms of the mental aspect of preparation and how to do this with a concern for holding on to the football. But we’ve got to get the best out of him, because as you know, he’s a very talented player with the way he played this past week. It’s been a balancing act a little bit. We get Josh (Williams) back this week, which will help, but I think more than anything else, I think Coach Wilson has done a really good job of balancing that discipline of carrying the football with we need you to play big for us, as well.”

On the balancing act between game preparation and recruiting?

“There’s no question about it. Our situation is different because most teams that are not playing in a championship game. They’re out on the road recruiting today, and certainly we’re preparing for the game. We can’t be out recruiting at this point, so you lose that opportunity. But recruits know that we’re preparing for a championship game, so you gain that back on the other end. Next week is where it really gets interesting. The transfer portal opens on (Dec.) the 5th. We certainly want to be able to recruit, but we want to obviously set our own roster as well. It’s balancing, setting your own roster, evaluating your team, exit interviews, doing those kinds of things while you’re also recruiting and keeping an eye on the portal. You’ve got a few balls up in the air next week. Then our guys are in exams, so it lends itself to where we don’t have to be hands on. We can turn them over to our strength and conditioning staff. It’s just a matter of balancing how much time we spend with the guys in terms of one-on-ones, so we can set our roster, who’s coming back, who wants to go to the NFL, who may want to go in the transfer portal, all those things we have to take care of and set our roster here at LSU, as well as look at the portal. We’ve got to recruit those that are coming in as mid-years. Three balls up in the air at one time next week.”

On any surprises you’re headed to SEC Championship Game?

“We needed to play to our absolute best when our best was needed, and we did. I’d like to say that for the entire year, but that has not been the case. A lot of it is we have some work to do in terms of building up the depth of our program and certainly continue to build our process. But I will say that they have given us everything. When the lights have come on and their best has been needed, they have given us their best. You don’t know that until you get around a group of guys in terms of what kind of fight they have. This group has a lot of fight. That’s why they’ll go to Atlanta, and they will fight, and they will play hard for four quarters, and they will give everything they have against a very talented Georgia team.”

On any advantages to facing Georgia in 2017, ’19 while at Notre Dame?

“I mean, structure defensively is very similar. Certainly, the personnel is different, but structure is the same. You know what you’re going to get. Offensively they’re a little bit different with Coach (Todd) Monken. He’s got a creative bend to him that’s a little bit different than what they had in ’17 and ’19, but there’s similarities there that we take as a crossover more than anything else. Again, this then becomes how do you handle (tight end) Brock Bowers? How do you handle some of the match-up situations that you have to deal with. The quarterback is totally different. I think structure is one thing in terms of knowing what the structure looks like, but then you have to game plan against individuals, and I think that’s where this becomes a little bit different.”

On biggest takeaway after coaching a year in SEC West?

“This past weekend (38-23 loss at Texas A&M), how you have to bring your best each and every week. If you don’t bring your best, you’ll get beat, and so I think that that to me more than anything else is the takeaway. You cannot play without the energy and the identity of your football team. There’s just too many talented players. If you’re not ready to play and play at your best, you’ll get beat. That’s the SEC West.”

On when did you feel you had buy-in from the players this year?

“I think it’s like anything else. When you put in a new way of doing things, new standards, it’s like anything in life. You go to a new business or new operation, there’s a new way of doing things. That just takes time. I don’t know that we’re there yet. I think the first year is really setting those standards, making sure that they understand. I think we’re at that level of conscious competence. We know what to do. We know how to do it. But it’s really hard for us. We want to get to where it’s unconscious competence. We don’t have to think about it. It’s just, we do it and we do it the right way every day. I think it’s still a process for us. They understand it a lot better. So, I think that’s where that level is. But we still have another level to go.”

Anything you implemented that you believed worked or decided not to change?

“You never really touch tradition, but you don’t worship it. You bring tradition along with you. That is, you make sure you’re welcoming former letter winners, former players, those that have been part of building the pride and tradition of LSU. I think that’s absolutely crucial, to have guys back that have helped win championships here. I think we’ve done a really good job of doing that without worshipping it and falling into that kind of hey, ‘We have to do it this way because it’s always been here’ but paying attention to those that helped build the program. I think that’s one way that I think we’ve done a really good job, and I think the other way is much more day-to-day in terms of we have a thing called SWAT teams where I think that’s standard and setting a standard, so our guys knew what the expectations were, and on a day-to-day, they come into our building and we’re not throwing them curve balls. They know exactly what they’re getting. It’s a consistency every day, and I think that creates an atmosphere within the building that they can trust.”

Any worries about a letdown after last week, losing shot at CFP spot?

“No, no. The least concerns I have is a letdown. We didn’t play up to our standards, and so our guys know it, and they care about that. You could sense it and feel it over the last couple of days from after the game in the locker room to yesterday, when they had to be here for meal, even today in the training room. Our guys know they let something slip away, and they’re upset about it. They know how they have to play. We don’t have a margin for error. We have to play with grit, we have to play with fire, we have to play to our identity, and if we don’t, we’re not the kind of team we need to be. I think they’re anxious to go back out and play up to their standard, and that’s the way I feel that they will play.”

On your matchup with Georgia’s 6-7, 270-pound tight end Darnell Washington?

“Hope they don’t throw it to him; is that what you mean? Sometimes we break this game down to one player against one. You’re hoping that in some situations that your zone coverage, where you have somebody underneath him or over the top, because really if you look at it, if it’s just a one-on-one situation, he’s a pretty unique athlete in that he can line up and has lined up at wide receiver. That’s not a great match-up for anybody. You’ve got to take some of those things away. You’ve got to be able to help with underneath coverage, over the top. Sometimes there’s bracket situations where you’ve got a corner with an inside backer and a safety and that triangle kind of takes away throwing lanes because if it’s just as simple as one guy versus one guy, that’s not a favorable situation. But you may get that sometimes, and you’re hoping the pass rush gets there. You’re hoping that (quarterback) Stetson (Bennett) can’t find him, things of that nature, because it is a match-up issue.”

On Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett?

“Yeah, I think when you turn on the film, he just exudes confidence. He’s a guy that has mastered the position, and what (offensive coordinator) Coach (Todd) Monken and certainly Coach Smart are asking him to do within that offensive structure, he just moves around with confidence. He’s only got very few rushes. He’s not a guy looking to run, although he can run away from you. In the Auburn game you could see him accelerate and separate from some defenders. But he wants to get the ball to his playmakers. He’s just smart, careful with the football. I think the confidence level that he brings, brings up the level of confidence around him and all the playmakers that he has.”

Does Georgia have advantage with third straight trip in this game?

“I don’t know that it is per se. I think that their team clearly has themselves in a mindset that this is where we should be, and we expect to be here, and we expect to win. Anytime you face an opponent that’s confident and believes they’re going to win; you’ve got to beat that. You’ve got to go ahead and take that from them. It’s like playing the Alabama teams, those that believe they’re going to win football games. We were 1-9 against Alabama in the last 10 games. They believed that they were going to beat us, and we had to go take it from them. We’ll have to do the same thing with Georgia. This is a team that believes they should be there, and they should win the SEC Championship. We have to overcome that, as well.”

On thoughts of Georgia’s defense?

“Well, certainly physical – the defensive tackles are outstanding, Carter and Beal. I think it’s pretty clear that what you’ll see is the perimeter players not only are athletic, but they’re outstanding tacklers, and that doesn’t surprise me coming from what Kirby does and obviously what he demands from his players. They’re tough-minded, they play physical, they play downhill. They play three down, four down, which we’re obviously seeing a lot of it, but you’ve got to make sure you minimize the negative plays against a defense like this. You could get into some bad plays and now you’re behind the chains. They get you in third down, now there’s a lot of things they can do. Eliminating negative plays against this defense in particular is really big.”

On your connections to Georgia coaching staff? Have you stayed close to them over years?

“Yeah, Chuck Martin at Miami of Ohio was on my staff, a lot of those guys. Look, when you come up through the Division II ranks and you have to learn how to do all the laundry as well as hand out meal money, and do those kind of things. You build a relationship with all those coaches that you carry with you through your entire career. We always stay in contact. John Jancek played for me. Those are the kind of things that you never forget when you start in Division II, and you don’t have the resources. As those guys kind of ascend and go on to other positions, Todd (Monken) and I have always stayed in contact. (He) Spent a lot of time when he was at Louisiana Tech, he loves the state of Louisiana. I think it’s just that connection you have when you’re Division II and you didn’t have the resources that make it special.”

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