Friendly coaches ready to rumble in SEC Championship

Friendly coaches ready to rumble in SEC Championship

When the time came Friday for the traditional pose-with-the-championship trophy for Georgia’s Kirby Smart and LSU’s Ed Orgeron, each coach was careful not to smile. Going by nothing else, one would think that was an indication of the seriousness of the moment as their Top 5 teams face off for the SEC Championship Saturday at 4 p.m.

Indeed, there are some consequential repercussions surrounding these proceedings. College Football Playoff berths are on the line.

The truth is, that brief moment was about the only time the opposing coaches weren’t smiling around each other. Right at the end of the photo session, they finally broke character. Smart cracked a smile first, followed by a tension-breaking  laugh and handshake from the man best known as “Coach O.”

Content Continues Below

Actually, Smart and Orgeron laughed and joked together much of the day. They hammed it up on the stage at the Hyatt Downtown Atlanta for the SEC Coaches’ Luncheon, and they were small-talking and chuckling during their appearance obligations at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday.

Turns out, these are two guys who genuinely like each other.

“Everyone has respect for Coach O. Number one, he's a great person,” Smart said during a news conference Friday. “He's fun to be around. ... I remember as a young coach, you would hear these stories about Coach O, and they were just crazy stories. I mean, you heard all these things. He's got such a charisma about him and a character about him that you enjoy being around him.”

Said Orgeron of Smart: “We talk, we laugh, we joke.”

They first met on the recruiting trail, Smart as a young assistant and Orgeron as a wily veteran wearing different hats from many coaching stops. But they’ve gotten to know each other especially well these last three years since Orgeron took over as the Tigers’ head man.

“I have the great fortune at every SEC meeting of having ‘F’ on my left, Florida, and L on my right, Louisiana, so I get to sit between those two guys,” Smart said of Orgeron and the Gators’ coach Dan Mullen. “It's definitely a big contrast. I enjoy getting to visit with Coach O.”

"I've known him for a long time," said the 58-year-old Orgeron, who is 14 years Smart's senior. "I enjoyed watching him play. He was a tough football player. When we go to coaches' meetings, he's very cordial to me." 
All niceties will be put aside for about four hours on Saturday evening as these coaches' teams meet in a highly-anticipated SEC title game. LSU (12-0) is undefeated and ranked No. 2. No. 4 Georgia (11-1) has won six straight since losing to South Carolina on Oct. 12 in a stunning upset to a team that finished 4-8.

Accordingly, the high-scoring Tigers (48.7 ppg) have been installed as a seven-point favorite. But they’ll be facing “the best defense we've seen by far,” Orgeron said. The Bulldogs, have allowed only 10.4 points and 257 yards per game.

The national narrative is that LSU will make the CFP even with a loss Saturday. Orgeron insists that thought hasn’t entered his team’s mind.

“This team is focused,” he said. “This team has goals. Beating Alabama was great; going 12-0 was great. But this team wants to win the Southeastern Conference Championship.”

So does Georgia, which is making its third consecutive appearance in this game as Eastern Division champions under Smart. This will be the Bulldogs’ third different opponent during this run, having beaten Auburn in 2017 and blowing a two-score, second-half lead to Alabama last year.

Georgia opened the season ranked No. 3, so it’s exactly where it expected to be, just not in the situation it expected, as an underdog to LSU.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to play in one of the greatest sporting events in all of college football,” Smart said Friday. “The history and tradition of the SEC speaks for itself. I know, being a South Georgia boy growing up, it was probably the biggest game you looked forward to seeing every year because the champion of this conference has carried itself well for many years, especially in the public eye. Our players have earned the right to be here and we’re excited about it.”

So are a lot of people. Once again, every one of the 73,000 seats will be filled. Not only is SEC Nation here, as would be expected, but so is ESPN’s College GameDay.

Of all the conference championship games being conducted across the country Friday and Saturday, this is the one with the greatest national implications and generating the most interest. That it features one of the most explosive offenses in SEC history piloted by a Heisman Trophy-favorite quarterback in Joe Burrow versus a Georgia defense drawing comparisons to the Miami Dolphins’ No-Name Defense of the 1970s gives it even more pizazz.

The question du jour among the many media personalities here to chronicle the game was whether the that stingy defense gives the Bulldogs a shot"I think they have to understand that, from the 20 (yard line) to 20, (LSU) can have all the yards they want, then you have make it a slow death and be really efficient in the red zone," said former Georgia defensive end David Pollack, now an analyst for ESPN GameDay. "Maybe you can make them kick some field goals. But I don't think anybody can stop this offense. Joe Burrow's worst game all year has been 71 percent. That's not human."

Said former LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears, who’s now an analyst for SEC Nation. “This is not the first prolific offense Kirby Smart has faced. He’s faced Alabama, played Oklahoma. So Kirby’s not a coach who’s going to be scared of this offense. He’s proven time and time again that he plays well for these types of games.”

As for the Bulldogs’ offense, they’re going to be without their top two receivers, Lawrence Cager, who was lost for the season last week to an ankle injury, and George Pickens, who will miss the first half Saturday after being ejected from the Georgia Tech game for fighting. But by all accounts, the Bulldogs will have the full services of star running back D’Andre Swift, who reportedly is showing now ill effects from a shoulder contusion that sidelined him for the last quarter and a half against the Jackets.

Swift, quarterback Jake Fromm and that offensive “with those five guys that are going to play in the NFL” is what concerns Orgeron, a defensive line coach by trade.

What doesn’t worry him is him and his team playing in this event for the first time while Georgia has been in it three years in a row. The Tigers are so excited about it they got into town Thursday night.

“Our guys got to the hotel last night, and we had a tremendous meal,” Orgeron said. “We had smothered pork chops, fried chicken, collard greens. The guys loved it, just like one big family eating together. Went to bed at 11:00 and didn't have to wake up until noon today. So, I'm sure they're rested and ready.”

Orgeron smiled wide as he shared that.