The SEC Championship Game Blog: Friday
Welcome to the 2019 SEC Championship Game Blog, your online home for the big news, behind-the-scenes notes and quotes and special moments that make this annual event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta the best conference championship game in the nation. Check back for updates each day throughout the week.
Hype it with the facts: The numbers don't lie
What makes the SEC Championship Game different? Let's count the ways.
LSU is ranked No. 1 in the nation in the AP and USA Today polls. Georgia is No. 4. That makes Saturday's matchup the second straight, fourth in the last eight years and sixth in the last 12 years in which the SEC Championship Game has been a summit meeting of top-five teams.
In 2008, No. 2 Florida took down No. 1 Alabama 31-20.
In 2009, No. 2 Alabama exacted its revenge on No. 1 Florida 32-13.
In 2012, No. 2 Alabama outlasted No. 3 Georgia 32-28.
In 2013, No. 3 Auburn outscored No. 5 Missouri 59-42 in the highest-scoring SEC Championship Game.
In 2018, No. 1 Alabama rallied to beat No. 4 Georgia 35-28.
In each case, the winner advanced to the National Championship Game. In fact, 12 of the last 13 SEC Championship Game winners have advanced to the National Championship Game. Since 2006, the only time the SEC Championship Game winner didn't go on to play for the national title was in 2014, when SEC champion Alabama lost in the semifinals of the first College Football Playoff.
Fun fact: The team with the higher ranking is 20-7 in the SEC Championship Game. In top-five matchups, the higher-ranked team is 4-2, which includes No. 3 LSU overwhelming No. 5 Georgia 34-13 in 2003.
Georgia knows the road to Mercedes-Benz Stadium
The SEC Championship Game is taking place Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the third straight year after moving from the Georgia Dome, its home from 1994-2016.
Who's the SEC East representative for the third straight year? The Georgia Bulldogs, joining Florida and Alabama as the only programs to earn their way into this game for at least three straight years.
Coincidence? Perhaps, but it's more of a tribute to the work done by fourth-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart, his staff and their players.
"I love the venue," Smart said. "I love the opportunity to go play in it. It means you've accomplished something. It's earned. You've earned that. It's not something you take lightly or take for granted."
The home-state advantage hasn't translated for the Bulldogs on the Mercedes-Benz scoreboard. They won the 2017 SEC Championship Game here against Auburn, but a month later fell to Alabama in overtime in the National Championship Game. In a rematch with the Crimson Tide in the 2018 SEC Championship Game, Georgia lost a fourth-quarter lead and the game.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron knows his fan base will show up Saturday, but he also realizes Athens is much closer than Baton Rouge.
"We're treating this as an away game," Orgeron said. "We've had crowd noise (piped into practice) all week."
Ed Orgeron has Joe Burrow stories
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow is considered the heavy favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, regardless of what happens Saturday, but he's already earned the everlasting respect and affection of his head coach. Ed Orgeron told two stories Friday to reflect the kind of player and leader the fifth-year senior has been for the undefeated Tigers.
Back in the spring, some recruits visiting LSU wanted to know if they could watch practice that day. Orgeron said no because it was a Saturday and there was no practice.
Turns out, thanks to Burrow and other team leaders, there was a players-only workout going on.
"He had many of those practices," Orgeron said.
This week, Burrow's parents called him but couldn't reach him. They learned his phone was broken and offered to replace it with a new one. His response, according to Orgeron: "I don't need a phone. I got a game to play this week."
"Joe's a silent leader," Orgeron said. "Joe won't scream. Joe won't holler. He does things by example. If things are not right, he'll step up and challenge guys. He's a fierce competitor. He is very focused. He's mature ahead of his years. He brings a lot to our football team."
All eyes on Georgia tailback D'Andre Swift's shoulder
Georgia tailback D'Andre Swift has made his mark on the SEC Championship Game. In 2017, his 64-yard fourth-quarter touchdown dash put the cherry on top of the victory over Auburn. In 2018, he scored touchdowns by rushing and receiving in the close loss to Alabama and led the team in both categories.
After topping the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second straight season, the junior has established himself as a go-to-guy in the Georgia offense, but a nagging shoulder injury aggravated in last week's win over Georgia Tech has been a concern.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Swift has practiced this week but "it's hard to measure" his health because they don't do live tackling drills this late in the season.
"I'm excited to see him go play," Smart said. "I have an expectation he'll play well."
LSU coach Ed Orgeron has a similar expectation.
"I'm assuming this guy is a great competitor," Orgeron said, "and I'm assuming he's going to play ... and he's going to play well."
Commissioner Greg Sankey addresses a wide range of topics
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey traveled from serious to stern to seriously funny during his annual pre-Championship Game press conference.
On the serious side, he reacted to the news that the U.S. Senate has formed a bipartisan working group to address Name, Image and Likeness rights for student-athletes. Sankey made it clear that SEC presidents and chancellors in October indicated "an openness to this conversation."
"We're ready and willing to engage," he said, but he doesn't believe the California law passed this year and scheduled to take effect in 2023 "is a destination that's most effective." Nor is he in favor of "a patchwork of different state laws across the country" because they "simply don't work to support national competition."
Sankey did not appreciate the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee denying Missouri's appeal on its case involving a former part-time academic tutor, calling it "an additional part of the bitter pill" that the appeals process lasted four months but kept the school's postseason bans in football, baseball and softball in place. He sounded angry that, after Missouri officials expressed their disappointment in the ruling, the NCAA sent out a tweet that he said "almost shamed" the school.
"We deserve more as membership than what that tweet from the NCAA national office provided," Sankey said. "The disappointment's real."
On a much lighter note, the commissioner indicated that while he's a fan of all 14 member institutions, having LSU reach the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2011 is sure to spice up the event.
"The LSU fans bring a special energy late at night," he said.
On other subjects:
Sankey said, at the midpoint of the original 12-year contract, the SEC presidents remain "happy with the four-team model" for the College Football Playoff. "Has worked, is working and will continue to work," he said, while acknowledging that regular reviews are part of the process.
If the playoff were to expand, the conference has no intention of giving up the SEC Championship Game, Sankey said, calling it "a cultural event" and "an incredibly special weekend for us."
The average length of SEC football games stayed at 3 hours and 20 minutes for the second straight season, Sankey said, and even though Auburn's 48-45 win over Alabama lasted closer to 4 hours, "No one said to me that game went too long. Everyone said what an incredible afternoon for college football."
Even though some cross-division opponents, such as Georgia and Texas A&M, play each other infrequently in football, addressing that subject by expanding the conference schedule from eight to nine games "hasn't gotten much traction in our athletics directors' conversations," Sankey said. "The vast majority thinks eight (games) works."
The @SECOfficiating Twitter account, part of the conference's effort to be more transparent in an area that generates so much public discussion and debate, "held up," Sankey quipped. "It's still functioning. It hasn't been banned by Twitter." He reminded everyone that the intention of the account was "to educate and inform," not "engage in debate."
"We didn't touch every questionable or controversial call," he said. "We did explain context for many calls."
While perfection is unattainable and "there's probably too much focus" on officiating, he said, "I think our officials perform at the highest level among college football officiating, and it shows and our coaches tell us that. They're not perfect, and we need to keep getting better and we're going to try to communicate even more effectively in the future."