Roles have changed for Georgia, LSU

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is one of just five current Bulldog starters who played in the 2011 SEC title game against LSU. (Reuters)

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is one of just five current Bulldog starters who played in the 2011 SEC title game against LSU. (Reuters)

ATHENS — Georgia’s starting tailback was Carlton Thomas. The star of the game was the Honey Badger.

That’s all you really need to know about how relevant the most recent meeting between the Georgia and LSU football teams is to their next one Saturday.

“It’s really different teams,” LSU head coach Les Miles said Monday.

It was only 18 games ago, the equivalent of a season-and-a-half, when then-No. 1 LSU ran away from upset-minded Georgia 42-10 in the SEC championship game. This game will feature the same two head coaches, Miles for the Tigers and Mark Richt for the Bulldogs. Neither team has overhauled its offensive or defensive scheme.

Yet the two teams are so different now.

LSU has just one starter remaining (receiver Odell Beckham) from that game. Georgia has five, including quarterback Aaron Murray. Two years ago, defense was each team’s strength. Now it’s each team’s big question.

Yes, these teams have changed a lot. For Georgia, that’s both good and bad.

Its offense is improved from that day. Murray is two years older and is now armed with a running game. Back in 2011, the tailback who rushed the ball the most that day, Isaiah Crowell, averaged 1.5 yards per carry. Now Todd Gurley makes the Bulldogs truly balanced, and Georgia boasts a Heisman candidate both at quarterback and tailback.

But Georgia’s defense isn’t as good as that year, when it finished ranked fifth nationally in yards allowed. Its defensive players talked a big game entering the LSU game and backed it up for one half, not allowing a single first down.

Eight of the players who started for Georgia’s defense that day are now on NFL rosters. Amarlo Herrera and Garrison Smith, the only current players who started that game, are now the grizzled veterans on a unit that starts three true freshmen, and several more who might as well be.

LSU, however, has flipped the script on itself.

Two years ago, it rode its defense. That unit isn’t close to as dominant as it used to be, and it’s up in the air whether it’s even good: Auburn managed 437 total yards on Saturday, including 213 rushing. There was a 10-play, 94-yard scoring drive.

There’s also no Brad Wing, the Australian punter who flipped the field in ridiculous fashion.

Of course, the offense has improved to the extent a great punter isn’t as necessary. And the running game remains as good as it has ever been, LSU churning out power running backs over and over. (Alfred Blue, who ran for a 48-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, is one of LSU’s running backs.)

“I remember that game clearly,” said Georgia junior linebacker Ramik Wilson, who only played on special teams. “They were just running and running.”

Then there’s Zach Mettenberger. The senior quarterback who started his career at Georgia has improved in his second year as a starter. New offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has helped, bringing his experience from the NFL. Cameron was fired late last season as the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive coordinator. The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl.

“He just seems very confident right now,” Richt said of Mettenberger. “He’s playing on a great team. He’s got some great backs and receivers, and he’s got some big strong linemen up front, and I’m sure he’s benefitting from his new coordinator and a great defense. They’re winning, they’re excited, and he’s one of the top-rated passers in America right now.”

There’s one more thing the Bulldogs can hang their hopes on this time around.

They’re more emotionally ready this time for LSU. Two years ago, they were clearly in awe, and even when they took a 10-0 lead, they weren’t ready to respond after Tyrann Mathieu’s punt return the touchdown. The game was effectively over at that point, even though Georgia had a halftime lead.

This time, it’s simply another big game. It’s the third game against a top-10 opponent since this season started.

“Being through it before a little bit is probably gonna be helpful,” Richt said. “Three out of four have been like it. Wish we had more like it than not like it.”