ATHENS -- As Mark Richt was speaking to the media after Wednesday’s practice, loud cheers and noise could be heard from the Georgia locker room. There was some rough-housing going on.
“It sounds like WrestleMania in there,” Richt said.
A louder roar went up a few minutes later.
“I hope it’s all in fun,” Richt said, smiling. “It sounds like it’s all in fun.”
Yes, the Georgia football team was not exactly tightly wound this week, despite being about to play in the nation’s biggest game, one that will dictate the course for the rest of their season.
Beat sixth-ranked LSU, and it’s full speed ahead for the national title hopes. Yes, one-loss Georgia would need some help, but the Bulldogs would figure to be favored in every game until the SEC championship.
Lose to LSU, and the Bulldogs almost certainly will be out of national title consideration. The season goals would have to be amended to winning a third straight division title and trying to win the SEC.
But the Bulldogs have been here already twice this season. They’re 2-1 overall and 1-1 in games of the week.
“We’ve played in a lot of big games, and we’ve kind of gotten to the point where it’s just like it’s just another football game,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. “You can’t get too hyped up over anything.”
That doesn’t mean the players don’t recognize the importance of this game.
“If we come out with a win this week, I feel like we control our fate; we decide our destiny throughout the rest of the season,” Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “They’re No. 6; we’re No. 9. I feel like if we beat them, we might go up in the polls and be set for where we want to go the rest of the season.”
“It’s big for us. It’s big for both teams,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Both teams have a lot of momentum right now, heading in the right direction, both programs feeling good, undefeated in the SEC. So this is a huge game for us.”
Murray is part of the key sub-plots of this matchup. Three years ago, he emerged from spring practice as the No. 1 quarterback on Georgia’s depth chart. A short time later, the No. 2 quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, was dismissed from the team after an arrest in Valdosta.
Now Mettenberger is the starter for LSU. The story line has been discussed ad nauseam, especially with his mother Tammy still being one of Richt’s administrative assistants.
“I know Mettenberger’s gonna be crazy hyped for this game,” Jenkins said. “He’s gonna come in on a mission.”
Mettenberger’s state of mind, and how it translates to his play, is a key part of the game for LSU. But for Georgia, here are the main keys to beating its second top-10 foe this month:
1. Offensive line play: The front five struggled at Clemson, and Georgia lost. One week later, the blocking was much better, and Georgia beat South Carolina. If the second version of Georgia’s line shows up, Murray, tailback Todd Gurley and company should have a big day.
2. Special teams play: Georgia has had three glaring errors this season, one of which proved pivotal in the Clemson loss. This time around, the Bulldogs at least need to do no harm on special teams and make sure that LSU star Odell Beckham isn’t a difference-maker on returns.
3. Rattling Mettenberger: The Bulldogs have such a young secondary, Mettenberger and his talented receivers (Beckham and Jarvis Landry) can do a lot of damage. So it will be up to Georgia’s edge rushers, principally Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, to make Mettenberger rush some of his throws. Sacks would be even better, and since Mettenberger is not fleet of foot, there’s a better chance of that than there was against Clemson or South Carolina.
4. Running games. Both teams are going to try to run the ball, eat up clock and keep their defenses on the sideline. LSU once again has a great rushing attack, but Georgia’s defense, which struggled at times the first two games, held North Texas to just 7 rushing yards. That’s really good, no matter the opponent. Meanwhile, Georgia’s offensive line needs to give Gurley and Keith Marshall room to run. Whichever team finishes ahead in rushing yards has a great chance to win.
The final factor is clearly in Georgia’s favor: Home field. LSU has yet to play a true road game, and Georgia already has won one big home game this year. So Richt is hoping it proves the decisive factor.
“It’s why you come to Georgia,” Richt said. “For games like this.”