ATLANTA -- The man known as Coach Stud felt anything but studly when apprised of his offense's pitiful first-half statistics in Saturday's SEC title game. Zero first downs. Twelve yards (five rushing, seven passing). "It feels like you're in quicksand," LSU offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa said.
But Studrawa could look at the scoreboard (only a three-point deficit) and around the locker room at halftime (nary a hint of panic) and know the Tigers would eventually move the ball against Georgia. After one of the worst offensive first halves in LSU history, the Tigers had the Bulldogs exactly where they wanted them. At least that's how Studrawa will tell it from this point forward.
"Defense and special teams," Studrawa said. "We have the best in the country at both of those. It's so fun to be an offensive coach when you can really take your time. We don't have to panic and start going for shots and throwing things and turn the ball over or take risky plays. Staying with what we do, it's going to come. Those guys buy us the time until we can do it. Then it's hard to stop once we get going."
Not merely hard. Virtually impossible.
LSU moved the ball 36 feet in the first half. The Tigers scored 35 points in the second half en route to a 42-10 win and the first locked-down spot in the BCS title game. It's up to the voters and the computer rankings to decide LSU's opponent, though last week's polls suggest a rematch with Alabama. That angers a lot of people, especially those who believe two teams that played to a 6-6 draw in regulation on Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., aren't quite as good as the voters have made them out to be. They say the SEC is down, and they're correct about that. From team No. 3 to team No. 12, the SEC is as weak as it has been in years. But the top two in the league happen to be the best two in the country. The idiotic system currently in place to determine the national champion asks pollsters to match the best team against the second-best team, not the best conference champ against the best conference champ.
Of course, should LSU lose the BCS title game in New Orleans, the Tigers might have a legitimate claim at a split national title. They beat two BCS AQ conference champs (Oregon and West Virginia) handily, and they beat the second-best team in the country (Alabama) at its own stadium. Only the Crimson Tide have even come close.
Or perhaps voters will decide Oklahoma State is the best opponent for LSU. The Cowboys kneecapped Oklahoma in Bedlam on Saturday, and Clemson helped by thrashing Virginia Tech -- a team that didn't belong above Oklahoma State in the human polls anyway. The computers love the Big 12 and the Cowboys, so Sunday's reveal (or the inevitable early leak) of the matchups should provide high drama. Someone is going to be very mad, and rightfully so. A playoff would decide this more fairly, but who wants a more fair, more lucrative, more exciting system of deciding a national champ? Apparently not the people who run college football.
For a while Saturday, it seemed Georgia might wreak havoc on the BCS. Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray threw three first-half touchdown passes, but his receivers only caught one of them. "With a team like that, you have to get points when you can," Murray said. "We had opportunities to put some points on the board."
Leading 10-0 in the second quarter, the Bulldogs finally stalled deep in their own territory. Punter Drew Butler kicked a line drive at LSU returner Tyrann Mathieu. The Honey Badger grabbed the ball and raced 62 yards for a touchdown, and suddenly Georgia's dominance had produced nothing more than a field-goal lead.
"I felt that I needed to change the momentum of the game," said Mathieu, who reinforced his dark horse Heisman campaign with MVP honors for his play on defense, the touchdown return and a video game-quality punt return in the third quarter that set up another touchdown. "It was the perfect time."
Of course, Mathieu might not have actually crossed the goal line. A replay showed he flipped the ball to the nearest official -- who happened to be signaling a touchdown at the time -- before the ball broke the plane. "I could see the referee looking at me kind of strange," Mathieu said. "I'll be sure next time to make sure I cross the goal line." (And hopefully that official will be sure to make certain the ballcarrier actually crosses the goal line before signaling a touchdown.)
Georgia got the ball first in the second half. On the third play from scrimmage, LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers stripped Murray. Mathieu -- of course -- recovered. Before LSU's next play, officials noticed Georgia had 12 men on the field. That gave the Tigers first-and-five. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson threw a six-yard pass to Reuben Randle for the Tigers' first first down of the day. This brought a Bronx cheer from the outnumbered LSU fans and a sigh of relief from Studrawa in the press box. "It was a load off my shoulders," he said. "I thought, 'OK, let's go.'" On LSU's next play, 240-pound Kenny Hilliard bulldozed ahead for a 15-yard touchdown. The Bulldogs had allowed two first downs and 33 yards, and the game was effectively over.
After an uncharacteristically sloppy first half, LSU's defense didn't allow the Bulldogs to cross midfield again until garbage time. "We just gave away the field position at the start of the second half," Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "We couldn't get the field position back. We got in a hole and couldn't get out."
Using mostly the quartet of Alfred Blue (94 yards), Hilliard (72 yards), Michael Ford (34 yards) and Spencer Ware (13 yards), the Tigers piled up 202 yards rushing in the second half. At practice last week, Studrawa couldn't believe how fresh his backs were this late in the season. They showed why Saturday, splitting the workload so no one player had to carry the offense. "What we get out of our running backs is enough to give our opponents real issues," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Now, the pressing issues will be of the off-the-field variety. No matter what the national title game matchup, a lot of people will be unhappy. For LSU's part, a rematch against Alabama isn't that big of a deal. "We would be honored to play them again," Miles said Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.
After today's game, SEC commissioner Mike Slive walked through the bowels of the Georgia Dome wearing a wide smile. Asked who he has at No. 2, he laughed. "I don't vote, baby," he said. Moments later, he greeted former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, the godfather of the BCS. The man who created the system chatted with the man who has benefitted the most from it. If the polls hold, the SEC will win its sixth consecutive national title. (Which makes it even more odd that it was Slive -- and ACC commissioner John Swofford -- who were shot down when they proposed a plus-one system a few years ago that might have allowed another league to win a national title.)
Only one team has definitively earned a national title shot this season, and that team is so good on defense and special teams that it got a confetti shower Saturday despite not making a first down in the first half. The Tigers don't care whether they get a rematch of the slobberknocker in Tuscaloosa or a showdown against an offensive juggernaut from the Big 12. They only want to go to New Orleans and beat someone. "It's our crowd now," Studrawa said with a belly laugh. "We'll walk there if we have to."