ATHENS, Ga. — There has been a lot of talk in advance of Saturday’s Georgia-LSU game about this being Zach Mettenberger’s homecoming. It is, and that’s a cool story line.
But that’s not what the game is about. Certainly not for the Bulldogs.
For No. 9 Georgia (2-1, 1-0 SEC) it is effectively a BCS playoff game. Having already lost (38-35 to Clemson in Week 1), a loss to No. 6 LSU (4-0, 1-0) likely would close the door on the Bulldogs’ goal of playing for the crystal football this season.
Yes, they could still play for the SEC championship, but based on the current topography of the college football landscape, there likely would be no path to Pasadena.
And the Dogs know it.
“If we want to get to the goals we’ve set for ourselves, we have to get this game,” Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said. “I feel like it’s a must-win. This is like an elimination game. To get to that Game 7 you’ve got to win Game 6, and this is Game 6 for us. And that’s how we’re going to approach it.”
Even the ever-optimistic Mark Richt can’t deny the big-picture implications of Saturday’s contest.
“We could lose the game and still control our (SEC) destiny, and they could, too,” the Georgia coach said. “So it’s not do-or-die as far as league play. But it’s very important for any national-title hopes.”
More so for Georgia than LSU. The Tigers bring in a clean slate against a relatively tame schedule. This is their first road game and their first game against a top-10 opponent. They’ve logged wins over TCU, UAB, Kent State and Auburn by an average margin of 27.8 points, including a 35-21 win against Auburn in Baton Rouge on Saturday.
For the Bulldogs, it will be their third top-10 matchup in a month. They forged a split with then-No. 8 Clemson and then-No. 6 South Carolina, the loss to the other Tigers coming in the other Death Valley and the 41-30 win over the Gamecocks coming between the hedges. Georgia struggled for a half before dispatching North Texas 45-21 on Saturday. It was the Bulldogs’ 14th consecutive win at Sanford Stadium.
Of course, Mettenberger’s story will get a lot of pregame play on the set of ESPN’s “College GameDay” and in CBS’ buildup for their 3:30 p.m. national broadcast. It’s the stuff producers live for: Local kid grows up dreaming of playing for the home team that momma happens to work for, gets to do that, runs into trouble, is banished only to return years later wiser, stronger and eager to prove his worth.
Mettenberger, of course, is downplaying it.
“It is just another game,” he said. “It is unfair the situation that my teammates and family are being put in. … I don’t want any outside media or spotlight on myself or my relationship with Georgia to take away from this game and the experience for all the other guys.”
While the battle of quarterbacks Mettenberger and his former roommate Aaron Murray will get top billing, the duel of two of the SEC’s best running backs — and by association, their respective lines — will more likely be the determining factor. Georgia is paced by 6-foot-1, 232-pound tailback Todd Gurley, who leads the SEC in rushing yards per game with 125.7. LSU’s Jeremy Hill ranks third with an average of 117 yards and leads the league with six rushing touchdowns.
Both teams are rebuilding on defense after the NFL snatched their best players. Between them, Georgia (nine) and LSU (eight) had 17 players off last year’s defenses end up in NFL camps. Statistically, the Tigers’ young group has been more impressive (310 yards, 19.5 points per game). But they have yet to run up against an offense as explosive as Georgia’s. The Bulldogs have averaged 574 yards and 40.3 points.
“It’s going to be an awesome game,” said Murray, whose 102 career touchdown passes rank second to Florida’s Danny Wuerffel in SEC history. “It’s exciting. That’s the reason ‘GameDay’ is going to be there. Two great teams, two very similar teams. It’s going to be a blood bath; it’s going to be a war. It’s going to be a knock-the-other-person-out kind of game, and it’s going to be fun. I know as a team we’re looking forward to it.”