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What to watch in the SEC title game

12/2/2011

Here’s a look at what to watch in Saturday’s SEC championship game between No. 14 Georgia and No. 1 LSU:

1. Going streaking: It’s been a while since either one of these teams has lost a game. LSU has won 13 straight, which is the longest active winning streak among FBS schools. Georgia has won 10 in a row, which is the third-longest streak. Of the two, Georgia has been involved in more close games during its winning streak, which could benefit the Bulldogs if Saturday’s game comes down to the fourth quarter. LSU has played only one game during its 13-game spree that has been decided by less than 13 points. That was the 9-6 overtime win against Alabama on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.

2. Strength vs. strength: Both of these teams have leaned hard on their defenses this season and with good reason. LSU is ranked second nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 248.4 yards per game. Georgia is ranked fifth nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 271.1 yards per game. When it comes to scoring defense, LSU is ranked second nationally and is giving up just 10.6 points per game. Georgia is ranked 10th and giving up 17.8 points per game. Getting into the end zone against either one of these defenses has been a struggle. LSU’s first-team defense hasn’t allowed a second-half touchdown in its past six games. Georgia’s first-team defense has allowed a total of 10 touchdowns during its 10-game winning streak.

3. Reid’s status: LSU sophomore safety Eric Reid, who was the star of the Alabama game, has been practicing this week after missing the Arkansas game with a quadriceps injury. However, it still sounds as if Reid isn’t back to 100 percent. LSU coach Les Miles said following Wednesday’s practice, “I still think there’s some question, but he practiced.” If Reid can’t go or is limited, that hurts the Tigers, especially with Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray's ability to spread the ball around. But the Tigers also proved last week against Arkansas that they’re plenty deep enough in the secondary to make it work. Tyrann Mathieu moved from cornerback to Reid’s free safety spot against the Hogs, and Morris Claiborne slid over to Mathieu’s nickel/slot position. Ron Brooks and Tharold Simon started at the cornerback spots. It’s the kind of quality depth that most teams only dream about.

4. Step-up time for Crowell: If the Bulldogs are going to have a chance to win this game, they have to be able to run the ball at least a little bit. Yes, it gets redundant saying that about anybody who faces this LSU defense, but the Tigers feast on offenses that become one-dimensional during the course of a game. That’s where Isaiah Crowell comes in. He hasn’t been the most durable guy this season, but he’s the kind of running back who can make somebody miss and turn a 5-yard run into a 50-yard gain. Crowell has also been the Bulldogs’ most effective runner between the tackles and is averaging 60.5 yards per game there. Also, all six of his runs of 20 yards or longer this season have come between the tackles. The tricky part for the Bulldogs has been keeping Crowell in the game for all four quarters.

5. Protecting Murray: Murray leads all SEC quarterbacks and is fourth nationally with 12 touchdown passes of 25 yards or longer this season, so he’s more than capable of hitting the big play. Georgia is going to need some big plays to soften up LSU's defense, and freshman receiver Malcolm Mitchell will play a big role for the Bulldogs if they’re able to do that. So will the Bulldogs’ offensive line. Arkansas wasn’t able to protect Tyler Wilson, who was sacked five times last Friday. For that matter, very few teams have been able to protect the quarterback against LSU. Murray has thrown 32 touchdown passes this season. But if the Bulldogs can’t protect him, his ability to get the ball down the field isn’t going to matter. He'll be trying to throw from his back.