PREVIEW:<br>LSU v. Georgia

With a week off to rest and a No. 3 national ranking to bolster their confidence, the Georgia Bulldogs prepare to face the No. 13 LSU Tigers on October 2 eager to make up for a pair of losses in 2003 that led to the Tigers claiming both the conference and national titles.

With victories over Georgia Southern, South Carolina, and Marshall under their belts already in 2004, the Bulldogs are riding high atop the SEC East at 3-0, while the Tigers used a dominating 51-0 shutout victory over Mississippi State on September 25 to run their record to 3-1.

 

But the impressive records are misleading, as the two teams, the most dominant in their divisions over the last few seasons, will meet in Athens, Ga., with neither firing on all cylinders.

 

The Bulldogs struggled early against Division I-AA opponent Georgia Southern before beating them 48-28, and trailed both South Carolina and Marshall before winning 20-16 and 13-3 respectively.

 

LSU opened its season with a sloppy 22-21 overtime victory over Oregon State in the rain before blowing out Arkansas State 53-3, then lost 10-9 at Auburn before returning home to claim Mississippi State's scalp.

 

Both teams are capable of much better performances than they have been giving so far this year, and both may well be eyeing the clash between the hedges as a chance to make a statement about their chances at another SEC title – although they will both have to answer plenty of questions in order to ensure the message gets heard.

 

Under center, while the Tigers continue to juggle fifth-year senior Marcus Randall and redshirt freshman JaMarcus Russell, the Bulldogs trot out decorated senior David Greene, considered by many before the season started to be among the best in the nation.

 

But while Greene (6-3, 230) ranks fourth in the conference in yards per game with 194.3, he is only completing 54.9 percent of his passes, and has thrown a mere three touchdowns. His two main targets thus far have been Fred Gibson (6-4, 196) and Reggie Brown (6-1, 195), who have hauled in 14 and 12 receptions each to rank among the top ten in the conference. Brown, despite having two fewer receptions, has been the more productive, gaining 198 yards and two touchdowns with his catches, while Gibson has 192 yards but is yet to find his way into the end zone.

 

The passing game has its work cut out against an LSU defense that once again ranks among the best in the conference, especially because the ground game has been anemic at best. With projected started Danny Ware (6-1, 225) missing time with a bruised lung, backups Michael Cooper (5-11, 225) and Thomas Brown (5-8, 185) have helped Georgia struggle to a 163.7 yards per game average, seventh best in the SEC. Cooper has been the best of the two with 115 yards and one touchdown, but neither is making opposing defenses forget Ware, who rushed for 180 yards and three touchdowns through the first two games before missing the Marshall game with the lung injury.

 

However, the bye week has given Ware time to heal, and he should be back in the lineup when the Tigers roll into town – as will linebacker Odell Thurman (6-1, 230), who will be returning from a three-game suspension for violating team rules.

 

Without Thurman, the Bulldogs have not exactly struggled, and rank first in the conference and sixth in the nation in pass defense, and second in the conference and twelfth in the nation in total defense, giving up a mere 125.7 yards and 260.3 yards per game respectively. The red and black also lead the conference in punt returns, behind the work of September 4-5 SEC Special Teams Player of the Week Tyson Browning, who leads the SEC by a wide margin with 127 punt return yards through three games.

 

Browning, along with punter Gordon Ely-Kelso – who was named Special Teams Player of the Week the week after Browning – have ensured that the Bulldogs have claimed the battle of field position in every game, and have ensured that Greene has not had to do too much to compensate for the running game troubles.

 

But with Ware back in the lineup, and Greene throwing to Gibson and Brown on a short field, Georgia is a much different machine and should not experience the same problems moving the ball they had against Marshall and South Carolina.

 

LSU, on the other hand, also had a running back return to the lineup when Shyrone Carey made his first appearance of the season against Mississippi State after finishing a four-game suspension that dated back to the 2004 Sugar Bowl.

               

With Carey back in the lineup, the Tigers have a weapon on kick returns they have only been able to dream about through the first four games, as backup return man Skyler Green has been hobbled by an ankle injury.

 

The senior's return, however, is tempered by the news that linebacker Mario Stevenson will be out for several weeks with an injury to his right leg. Stevenson's absence was not missed against Mississippi State, however, as the LSU defensive unit registered three sacks and four interceptions against the maroon and white Bulldog offense, while his replacement, Ali Highsmith, registered one sack and led the team with four total tackles.

But the red and black Bulldogs will look to give the Tigers many more looks and offensive formations than their maroon namesakes, and Highsmith will be called upon early and often if LSU wants to keep Ware and company in check.

The Tiger defensive backs, called in for criticism often during the early part of the season, began to look like the championship unit they were touted as before the season started against Mississippi State, holding quarterbacks Kyle York and Omarr Connor to a paltry 90 yards passing – which was still an improvement from the Bulldog ground game, that managed to pick up only 40 yards in the loss.

LSU, who boasted the best defense in the nation in 2003, is once again among the top in Division I-A, and with the momentum gained from the Mississippi State victory will be traveling to the Peach State ready to aim for a third straight victory over the 2002 SEC Champions.

Before the season started, the LSU vs. Georgia matchup was touted by many as the best in the nation in 2004.

Three weeks into the nation, it looked as if the prediction could not be any less true.

But five weeks in, with Ware, Thurman, and Carey back?

The game is once again a must-see.


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