(CBS Local)- Once again, entering the final weekend of the season, the SEC has two teams set up for potential berths in the College Football Playoff. But this year unlike in previous years, it’s not the team that resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
In place of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide stand the #1 LSU Tigers, winners of the West division and purveyors of a modernized offense that fans have wanted for years. But Saban’s presence still looms over the game, as Kirby Smart, one of his proteges, leads the #4 Georgia Bulldogs to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in hopes of clinching the SEC title. The two heavyweights have taken different roads to the conference title game, but one thing binds them: great offensive line play.
CBS Sports Network analyst Aaron Taylor explains that though these two teams run vastly different offensive systems, the success begins up front.
“Both lines have done a tremendous job of allowing their teams to be successful on their side of the ball this season,” said Taylor. “These offensive lines are critical to the success. It might be Jake Fromm and Joe Burrow that we have been talking about all season long, but these offensive lines have a lot to do with that.”
Taylor knows just a bit about offensive line play, having been a two-time All American at Notre Dame before playing six years in the NFL. His study of the position has extended beyond his playing career through his involvement in the awarding of the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the team with the country’s best offensive line. Not surprisingly, LSU and Georgia, along with other playoff favorites Ohio State and Clemson, are among the 10 teams named as semifinalists for this year’s trophy.
However, that is where the similarities end. Because while these two groups of maulers have shown themselves to be among the elite of the position, they have done so in different ways.
“Georgia, their bread and butter is being physical. It’s the biggest line in Bulldogs history, and Sam Pittman once again has done a masterful job of creating a physical presence that is dominant at times,” said Taylor. “LSU has been a work in progress, they had some early suspensions. There were some pieces that moved in and out of the lineup, but they have really turned the tables recently. What is really remarkable about them is how frequently they’re asked to protect in what we call empty sets, no back and no tight end to help out. Mano e Mano. Five o-linemen versus five, sometimes six defensive players, and they hold their own.”
That makes for an interesting contrast of styles heading into Saturday’s affair in Atlanta. The Tigers high-powered offense has yet to be truly slowed down this season, but the Bulldogs present a ball-control, crush-your-opponent’s-will type of running game that can often lead to fewer overall possessions in a game. While the explosiveness of the Tigers presents a problem, Taylor sees UGA as a unit without any holes.
“There really haven’t been any glaring weaknesses that they have had. There have been different sides of the ball that have struggled for a few series or even parts of games but consistently, they have had no weaknesses,” said Taylor. “To quote one of my all-time favorite literary novels, The Jungle Book, ‘the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.’ That has been what is so remarkable. The strength of their defense is there are no stars. There are just really good, solid players, and they don’t make many mistakes.”
The ‘Dawgs defense hasn’t gotten a ton of attention as one of the better units in the country, but they certainly deserve it. As Taylor notes, their pass defense in particular has been suffocating.
“They haven’t given up a touchdown pass in their last three games. They have been remarkable on that side,” said Taylor. “That is a strength-on-strength matchup this weekend that is something to keep an eye on. Also interesting is they haven’t been able to turn the football over on that side of the ball, at least in terms of interceptions, with only six on the year.”
The strength-versus-strength matchup that Taylor alludes to there is the ‘Dawgs pass defense (15th at 186 YPG) against an LSU passing attack led by Burrow, which has rolled up over 390 yards per game (second) and averages over 13 yards per completion and 10 yards per attempt. Watching that battle play out on Saturday will be fascinating, but perhaps more important will be how Georgia operates offensively in the absence of wide receiver Lawrence Cager (ankle), George Pickens (suspended for first half) and a banged-up De’Andre Swift (shoulder contusion).
“Georgia going into this game has struggled as of late on the offensive side of the ball. They have been inconsistent,” said Taylor. “We have watched Jake Fromm complete under 50 percent of his passes three times in 37 starts, and two of those have been losses. Also, when he throws the ball to win ball games if the run game is not there, they have also struggled. There is a potential that could be the case. For the Bulldogs to win they’re going to have to let their defense lead the way and go old-school.”
The Tigers and Bulldogs are set for kick-off from Atlanta on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS.