Tennessee led for most of the game but quarterback Erik Ainge threw two fourth-quarter interceptions – the first one being returned 18 yards for the go-ahead touchdown by Jonathan Zenon with 9:54 to go.
Ainge marched the Vols to the Tiger 21-yard line moments later but freshman Denarius Moore dropped a pass on fourth-and-4 to end that drive. Ainge then guided the Vols to the Tiger 15-yard line with three minutes left, only to be picked off by linebacker Darry Beckwith. LSU (11-2) ran out the clock to seal its third SEC title in the past seven years, probably earning the host role in the Sugar Bowl.
"It was good plays by them, bad decisions by me," said Ainge, who finished 20 of 40 for 249 yards and two touchdowns in addition to the two interceptions.
Counting two previous SEC Championship Games and two Peach Bowls, Tennessee (9-4) has now lost five consecutive games at The Georgia Dome. The Vols could be returning to The Dome for the Chick Fil-A Bowl, although the Outback Bowl is another possible post-season destination.
"You feel like your heart has just been snatched out of your body," Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer said on his post-game show. "These kids have worked so hard and practiced so hard and played so hard to get to this point. It really is a tough pill to swallow."
Given up for dead following a 41-17 Game 7 loss at Alabama that dropped Tennessee's record to 4-3, the Vols won five games in a row to earn a No. 14 national ranking, the SEC East title and a bid to Atlanta. They just didn't have enough gas left in the tank to beat the fifth-ranked Tigers.
"It was sad ... tough, but you've got to give LSU credit," Fulmer said. "You can't turn it over. You just can't do that, particularly backed up."
Even with Flynn sidelined, LSU's high-scoring offense was expected to dominate a much-maligned Tennessee defense. Although the talented Tigers piled up 464 yards of total offense, they managed just one offensive touchdown and two 30-yard Colt David field goals against the scrappy Vols.
"They absolutely laid it on the line," Fulmer said. "They played their rears off. We knocked a bunch of 'em around. Every time they (Tigers) would catch a ball we had somebody splattering 'em."
Still, LSU outrushed Tennessee 212 yards to 94, with 230-pound Jacob Hester gaining 120 yards on 23 carries. Speedy Trindon Holliday added 58 on six carries and Keiland Williams 34 on five rushes. Demetrius Byrd was tops among LSU receivers with 72 yards on just four catches.
LSU won by being productive on third down, converting on 10 of 20 opportunities. The biggest was a 27-yard TD pass from Perrilloux to Byrd on a third-and-16 that produced a 13-7 LSU lead early in the third quarter. The Tigers also did a tremendous job controlling the ball, keeping possession for 36:08 to Tennessee's 23:52.
The Vol offense started impressively – an 11-yard touchdown toss from Ainge to Chris Brown capping a six-play, 57-yard march on the game's opening possession. Tennessee would score just once more the rest of the afternoon, however. That came when Ainge hit Briscoe with a six-yard pass to produce a 14-13 lead with 3:09 left in the third quarter.
That lead lasted until Zenon made his big interception with 9:54 to go. A two-point conversion run by Perrilloux concluded the scoring.
Middle linebacker Jerod Mayo paced the UT defensive effort with 15 tackles – 10 of them coming in the first half. In the end, though, the defense didn't get enough help from a Vol offense that converted on just 4 of 13 third-down plays. Meanwhile, usually automatic place-kicker Daniel Lincoln misfired on field-goal tries of 29 and 52 yards.
"When you're good – when you're where you want to be – you can do things equally (run and pass) and take advantage of the other team's weaknesses," Fulmer said. "I don't think we did that very well offensively today ... if they had a weakness defensively."