L.S.U. Makes Case for Top Seed in Playoff With SEC Win
ATLANTA — The Southeastern Conference title game was less than three minutes old when the Louisiana State offense stormed onto the turf and started a pair of closing arguments on Saturday. One was to demand the College Football Playoff’s top ranking. The other was for the Tigers’ quarterback, Joe Burrow, to win the Heisman Trophy.
The first possession against No. 4 Georgia swiftly set a course that could ultimately see L.S.U. prevail on both fronts: The nation’s second-ranked team scored with ease on a drive in which Burrow both set a conference record for passing touchdowns in a season and unexpectedly wound up as a receiver himself.
When time finally, or maybe mercifully, expired on Saturday night, L.S.U. had won, 37-10, its ambitions freshly enhanced and unchecked. The last lingering mysteries about its playoff prospects will be settled on Sunday, when its seeding and opponent for a semifinal game later this month will be announced.
And although Burrow must wait until next weekend to learn whether he won college football’s most prestigious personal prize, he effectively converted the season’s SEC finale into the kind of stat-padding star turn that can compel voters to complete their ballots before bedtime — if they still had any late-season doubts about the award’s leading contender.
He was the leading passer for L.S.U. on Saturday, of course, with 349 yards and four touchdowns. But when the fourth quarter started, he was also its leading rusher.
The game, the playoff era’s first duel for an SEC title without Alabama still chasing a semifinal berth, seemed like a mismatch from its opening minutes, when a penalty spared Georgia a three-and-out on its first possession.
Burrow took control from his first snaps, most remarkably when a Georgia defender deflected a pass back into the hands of the L.S.U. quarterback, who scurried for 16 yards. Five plays later, Burrow passed — to someone else this time — for a double-digit gain and a touchdown.
Georgia, a team that had downed Auburn, Florida and Notre Dame, arrived for its third consecutive league championship game openly wary of L.S.U.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a former defensive back who confessed that he had been far more eager to put Georgia’s defense against L.S.U.’s offense before he spent last weekend watching film, spent the week publicly marveling at the team from Baton Rouge.
“They don’t sit there and beat people with scheme,” Smart said on Friday afternoon. “They run very similar plays from different formations, but they’re highly, highly efficient at doing this.”
So it went again on Saturday.
Burrow was at his most dazzling on his feet and would scamper away from Georgia’s surging defenders. For L.S.U., it so often seemed that big pressure from the Bulldogs yielded big gains on plays that had, seconds earlier, looked destined to fail. Burrow was sacked just twice.
Still, Burrow insisted that Georgia had disguised its blitzes well.
“They had a new package for us this week that I didn’t see on film,” he said. “That’s why I was having to make those scrambles. I told the O-line before the game, ‘This one’s going to be a lot of fun. I can just feel it.’ That’s exactly what it was.”
Yet by halftime, the gaps between Georgia and L.S.U. were conspicuous, the eventual outcome in little doubt.
Eight L.S.U. players caught passes in the first half as the Tigers raced to a 17-3 lead and gained an average of almost 7 yards per play. Georgia ended the half with a 40-yard throw that was promptly erased because quarterback Jake Fromm had crossed the line of scrimmage before throwing the ball.
Georgia held L.S.U. to a field goal to begin the second half, which counted as a respite from an offensive onslaught. The Bulldogs, at a neutral site so filled with red-and-black clad fans that many sections resembled those in Georgia’s home stadium about 70 miles away in Athens, started what would become a 12-play drive.
There was a measure of promise to narrow the margin. There was a 13-yard run from D’Andre Swift, followed by a 14-yard rush by Fromm. George Pickens, a wide receiver, caught a pass, cut left and right, hurdled a man and gained 18 yards. Georgia stood on L.S.U.’s 19-yard line, roughly equal to their deepest penetration through more than 40 minutes of play.
The next three plays fell short of a first down. Then Rodrigo Blankenship, the mainstay of Georgia’s special teams, missed a 37-yard field goal. Georgia fans walked toward the concourses.
Those who missed the very next play will probably be able to watch it on L.S.U. hype videos for years to come, mesmerized or horrified, depending on their allegiances, by the sequence that started when Georgia pressured Burrow.
No. 9 danced as the red jerseys swarmed toward him. He backtracked. He darted toward his own sideline. Finally, he fired a pass to Justin Jefferson, whose own footwork helped turn a near-sack into a 71-yard gain. It was the fourth-longest pass in the history of the SEC title game.
“I put my hand up to say I was open, but I didn’t think he was going to throw it,” Jefferson said in the locker room after the game.
Indeed, it was the type of stirring play that is central to the SEC’s recurring plot, in which a Heisman contender transforms the championship showdown into a showcase. Since 2009, three of the conference’s four Heisman winners starred in the game here days before they claimed the trophy in New York. Burrow, in his final year at L.S.U. after transferring from Ohio State before the start of last season, probably did not need Atlanta’s grand stage to persuade voters, whose ballots are due on Monday.
With the spread offense suddenly in style in Baton Rouge, he entered Mercedes-Benz Stadium with 4,366 yards passing this season, a conference record and second in the nation this year, trailing only Anthony Gordon of Washington State. He had completed more than 78 percent of his passes and become the first player in the league’s history to throw for at least 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in a single season.
“God, he makes us look good with everything he does,” said Joe Brady, L.S.U.’s passing game coordinator. “He’s one of those guys that, he’s just always wanting more. He’s always thinking, he’s on the sidelines talking about, ‘Hey, some things I’m looking for, things I’m liking.’”
Brady went on: “I’m not amazed because it’s kind of the expectation I have for Joe now.”
As the score climbed higher and higher for the Tigers, there came a question of when, or whether, L.S.U. would pull the man so crucial to its quest to win its first national championship since the 2007 season.
He did leave, eventually. There were less than four minutes to play, but Georgia still did not get the ball back. And immediately afterward, L.S.U. could only wonder how the playoff selection committee would slot its squad — and argue, some more convincingly than others, that it was not entirely relevant.
“It don’t matter where they rank us, where they tell us to go,” said Ed Orgeron, the L.S.U. coach. “We’ve got to win the next game. That’s all that matters.”
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