Rabalais: LSU-Georgia is a top-flight matchup

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU coach Les Miles leads his team onto the field before kickoff against Auburn on Sept. 21 in Tiger Stadium.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU coach Les Miles leads his team onto the field before kickoff against Auburn on Sept. 21 in Tiger Stadium.

BY SCOTT RABALAIS

srabalais@theadvocate.com

This game has it all.

LSU-Georgia is like a fully loaded car — or a fully loaded baked potato. A first-class ticket, with a week-long stay in Tahiti at the end of it.

This game is so rich with talented players, enormous Southeastern Conference and national championship implications and intriguing subplots it could give you cavities. Or have you scurrying to your cardiologist.

And there’s Lee Corso on the sideline, waiting to stuff a tiger or a bulldog mascot headgear on top of his silvery mane, the finishing touch on a week-long buffet of hype.

Let’s leave Lee and his haberdashery now and pay Zach Mettenberger his due, the man who pulls the many intriguing threads of this showdown game together into the palm of his talented right hand.

Were it not for one mistake-filled night he had back in 2010, Mettenberger might well be the player LSU is scheming to defeat Saturday instead of the man upon whom so many of the Tigers’ hopes rely. But we are the choices we make, and few people in LSU sports history have personified that truth more than Mettenberger.

Today he returns a chastened and well-traveled senior wearing purple and gold, not red and black. His head is filled with Cam Cameron’s quarterbacking knowledge and his heart with determination to show the good folks of his Athens, his hometown, how much he has grown in the last three years.

Mettenberger’s opposite number is his former and for the moment current rival, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray. Murray’s own legacy is on the line in this game as well. Barring injury he will leave Georgia as the SEC’s all-time career leader in passing yardage and touchdowns — no small accomplishments to be sure in the league of the Mannings and Tommy Hodson and Joe Namath. But with a loss to LSU he could leave Georgia without a championship and retain the stigma of a dreadful record (currently standing at 2-9) against top-10 teams.

Yes, this game has it all. Of course, Mett and Murray could save us all a lot of time if they just drew swords and started dueling at Sanford Stadium’s 50-yard line in winner-take-all single combat. Loser leaves town and is never allowed to return to Athens again.

Georgia may still be in control of the SEC East if it loses to LSU, but the Bulldogs will almost certainly be out of the BCS title hunt. Yes, LSU captured its most recent BCS trophy in 2007 with two losses, but in a practical sense two-loss teams should never count on earning memembership in the club.

If the Tigers win, they can complete their remarkable September transformation from rebuilding superpower to bona-fide 2013 national title contender. Faith in Les Miles and the power of The Hat — dented and sullied a bit by the still stinging BCS loss to Alabama, a couple of major recruiting losses to the Crimson Tide (though this week’s commitment from 2017 U-High phenom Dylan Moses is a tangible victory) and the implications in Sports Illustrated’s Oklahoma State investigation — would go a long way to being reclaimed.

Though LSU has many stern tests still to come this season, if LSU can win this one after losing the equivalent of an entire starting 11 early to the NFL draft, then maybe there really is something other-worldly under Miles’ chapeau. And the Tigers, currently No. 6 in the major polls, could find themselves leapfrogging a team or two back into the top five.

For sure, Miles and his Tigers needed Jeremy Hill to get back into this position. Hill has worked his way back from his own personal purgatory into becoming a major player on the national stage. His improvement builds week by week, culminating with his 184-yard, three touchdown performance last Saturday in LSU’s win over Auburn, and has put him in the same orbit of conversation with Georgia’s uber-talented and fellow sophomore tailback Todd Gurley.

Their matchup, even more than the one between Mettenberger and Murray, could go the farthest to deciding whether LSU or Georgia wins. Neither defense is up to its usual Steel Curtain standards this season after all their key players from last year now playing for pay in the NFL. Keeping the ball away from the other team’s offense with a ground-shaking running game may turn out to be the best defense of all.

Then again, this one could come down to late kick or a dazzling special teams play.

Paging Odell Beckham, Mr. Odell Beckham Jr. How about Georgia lining up to win it with a long field goal, the ball coming up short and Beckham weaving his way through the red shirts for a score like he did against UAB?

This game already has it all. That would simply be too much.