Athens, GA, had about everything you could ask for when it came to college football this past weekend. The campus is simply beautiful and the early fall weather that descended upon it was nothing short of invigorating.
Thousands upon thousands of ravish fans crammed into this small, southern town to be a part of the epic scene. The home standing, No. 9 Bulldogs were set to battle with the undefeated, No. 6 LSU Tigers. And, the national media certainly wouldn't be left out. Reporters were there every step of the way. Friday afternoon, the ESPN College Game Day set had already been erected, with lead host Chris Fowler taking casual strolls amongst the passionate folks who had already gathered. THIS is what it's all about.
The game itself lived up to every drop of the hype … and then some. If there was an empty seat in the massive arena, I didn't see it. A total of 92,746 people stuffed themselves into Sanford Stadium on a clear, crisp afternoon for what turned out to be a classic SEC shootout between the hedges. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger kept his emotions in check and gunned his way to a career high 372 yards passing and three touchdowns. The former Georgia Bulldog, who was exiled from the program because an unfortunate off the field incident, made this game about his LSU teammates, not himself. Still, even in defeat, it might have been Mettenberger's finest hour. The Bulldog defenders he toasted described Mettenberger as "an NFL quarterback" and praised his toughness as a man "who's not afraid to get hit."
Mettenberger indeed had an opportunity to write the ultimate storybook ending, as LSU got the ball back with 1:42 left in the game and trailed 44-41. Certainly, the Tigers would drive for the game-winning touchdown or at least a field goal to force overtime. But neither occurred, as a flurry of Mettenberger passes skipped off the turf. The last of those sent Bulldog fans into ecstasy. The folks in red leaped and screamed with approval. The Georgia players danced jubilantly.
Beating LSU is a big deal.
And while it's not popular to praise the enemy, I'll toss some accolades Georgia's way. I don't cover Mark Richt on a game-to-game, day-to-day basis. But when I have gathered for his news conferences at SEC Media Day or the SEC Championship vs LSU two years ago, he has seemed tremendously genuine. The Bulldogs' head coach has had a large number of poisonous darts thrown his way by the media and fans in recent years, despite a 121-41 record at the school. No, he hasn't won a national championship. Yes, he's won only two SEC Championships in now his 13th year on the job. But the guy's heart appears to be in the right place. His strong faith and ample charity work are both well-documented. And if Richt was teary-eyed when he embraced his former player Mettenberger when the game concluded, I believe it was sincere.
Georgia's quarterback is much like its coach, probably too much flack thrown his way. Senior Aaron Murray has taken a ton of criticism for not winning the big game. Well, this was a pretty significant one. Murray finished 20-34 passing, for 298 yards and four touchdowns vs LSU, including the gut-wrenching, 25-yard scoring toss to Justin Scott-Wesley with 1:47 left in the game. And not only will he likely become the SEC's all-time leading passer before the end of the year, Murray also appears to be a pretty good kid.
You can pick worse people to lose to.
Athens may be the home of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musical act REM, but it's not the end of the world as we know it for LSU. If the Tigers can run the table, a rematch with Georgia in the SEC Championship is very possible. But the task is daunting, especially at No. 1 Alabama on November 9 and at home against Johnny Manziel and No. 9 Texas A&M on November 23. The LSU secondary must begin covering receivers, instead of shouting at each other after big play busts. The linebacker corps needs to start popping ball carriers in the hole. And a pass rush from the edge certainly wouldn't hurt either. Otherwise, two or three more losses are very possible for head coach Les Miles' club.
But this quick blurb isn't to dwell on the negative. Instead, it's to truly appreciate what a tremendous positive Saturday was. Two proud programs put on an incredible show for the entire country to behold. Most schools pray to one day play in a game of this magnitude. The future NFL talent was everywhere on the field. Tiger junior wide receiver Jarvis Landry, for one, was a human highlight film. How does he control his body and make catches like that? These are things everyone can appreciate.