A showdown on the bayou

It's not so much a traditional rivalry as an embarrassment of riches. For the fifth time in eight years, the SEC's two most successful programs of this decade will face off.

No. 11-ranked LSU and 9th-ranked Georgia have accounted for five of eight SEC titles since 2000, not to mention two national championships, both won by the Tigers.

Factor in a combined 6-1 record in BCS bowl games, and it’s apparent the Tigers and Bulldogs are two of the biggest heavyweights in the modern college football landscape.

“All games against top-ranked opponents are big for this program,” said senior guard Herman Johnson. “It’s time to come out motivated, execute and win.”

The battle for national supremacy may have kicked up another notch in 2007. After falling to Tennessee in the regular season, Georgia did not play for the SEC title and watched LSU climb to college football’s throne. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs capped a red-hot, seven-game win streak with a 41-10 obliteration of Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.

By season’s end, some football fans saw Georgia as the best team in the land and nearly everyone in Athens, including Mark Richt and other high ranking administrators, lobbied for the Bulldogs (11-2) to jump a two-loss LSU team for the right to play Ohio State for the BCS National Championship.

Somehow, Georgia overlooked the fact that it did not even win the SEC Eastern Division title, but there was still plenty of talk coming out of Athens after LSU won the national championship.

“Last year was last year,” said senior receiver Demetrius Byrd. “They did the talking, but we got our national championship that we were shooting for. That’s strictly between them. They’re just the next team on our schedule, and we’re ready to go ahead and get it on.”

The series sits tied at two, although that’s certain to change in short order. LSU won the first two meetings of the decade in 2003, with Skyler Green lifting the Tigers to a 17-10 win in a hard-fought day battle. The next meeting was for the SEC title, and LSU’s emphatic 34-13 drubbing of the ‘Dawgs served as a catalyst for a national championship.

Georgia countered with a pair of sucker punches in ’04 and ’05. Much like this season’s Florida game, a Tiger team fresh off a national title went on the road and was walloped. Georgia rolled between the hedges, 45-16.

In Les Miles’ first season the pair met once again for the SEC title, with a similarly disappointing result. ‘Dawg quarterback D.J. Shockley ran and rushed his way to an MVP selection, and Georgia cruised to a 34-14 victory.

“Any time there are two good SEC teams, it’s going to be a rivalry, it’s going to be a big-time game,” said senior linebacker Darry Beckwith. “As soon as we were done on Saturday [South Carolina] we knew we had this big one coming up.”

On Monday, Beckwith said he could already feel the buildup for the first big home game of the season around LSU’s campus.

“Oh you can feel it,” he said. “It’s one of those types of things where it’s getting a little chilly outside, and it’s just good football weather.”

As if the buildup for an SEC game between ranked teams weren’t enough, Saturday’s clash will serve as a de facto elimination game. Just halfway into the season, each program has experienced a tough setback.

LSU fans are all too aware of the 51-21 beat down their Tigers received in Gainesville on Oct. 11, and just two weeks prior to that the Bulldogs allowed Alabama to build a 31-0 halftime lead in their own stadium.

Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide loom large on LSU’s schedule, while Georgia still must make the trip to Jacksonville, Fla. to face the Gators. It’s almost certain the loser of this weekend’s game won’t be buying tickets to Atlanta for yet another SEC title game.

“That’s what makes college football so exciting,” Beckwith said. “To be a great athlete you look for stuff like this. Having one loss, it drives you to motivate yourself and win every game. I think that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

The winner will launch itself back into SEC and national championship contention. The loser will look for a silver lining in what will have to be considered a disappointing follow-up to a spectacular 2007.

You couldn’t ask for a better way to start a five-game home stand in Tiger Stadium. It’s just another Saturday in the SEC.

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