Tigers, Bulldogs overcome adversity

Since college football is stuck on polls and computer programs when it comes to deciding who plays for the national championship every year, let's take a few liberties of our own in the Southeastern Conference.

Which is the best team in the league right now?

Auburn's a pretty popular choice, given the way the Tigers closed the season with back-to-back victories over Georgia and Alabama.

The only thing that kept them from reeling off 10 in a row was five missed field goals in a 20-17 overtime loss at LSU on Oct. 22.

Talk about your cruel ironies. Tommy Tuberville couldn't get the votes when he needed them last year. Now, when it's largely superficial, his Tigers are basking in the love.
The only problem is that Auburn won't be in Atlanta on Saturday when the SEC championship game is played.

That distinction will belong to the two teams that did the best job of surviving this season -- Georgia in the Eastern Division and LSU in the Western Division.

Figuratively and literally, Georgia limped to the Eastern Division title after senior quarterback D.J. Shockley sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee against Arkansas on Oct. 22.

Shockley missed the next game against Florida, and Georgia's offense was a no-show in the 14-10 loss.
A case could be made that the Bulldogs haven't been the same since Shockley's injury. He played against Auburn, but the Tigers prevailed in a 31-30 thriller.

Georgia routed punchless Kentucky to clinch the East the next week and had to hold on for dear life last week against Georgia Tech.
It hasn't been the smoothest of finishes, but not many people (outside of Athens anyway) expected the Bulldogs to be here in the first place.

Tennessee and Florida dominated much of the preseason talk in the East. Georgia was an afterthought.

"I think the team liked flying under the radar," Georgia senior cornerback DeMario Minter said. "There wasn't a lot of attention, and we were able to come out and surprise some folks. I think it helped us being under the radar."

The Bulldogs know their way around the Georgia Dome pretty well. This is their third appearance in the SEC championship game in the last four years.

The team they'll be facing is also becoming a regular.

LSU is making its third trip to the SEC championship game in the last five years. LSU and Georgia played for the title in 2003, with the Tigers winning a 34-13 blowout on their way to the national championship.

As much as the Bulldogs have persevered this season, perhaps no team in the country has gone through what the Tigers have this season and are still in the position to win a championship.

First, Hurricane Katrina cut a path of destruction through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Rita blasted through several weeks later.

The month of September was a nightmarish whirlwind.

The Tigers didn't know when they were going to practice, where they were going to play and when they were going to play.

"I think we've had a little more riding on our shoulders," LSU senior defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "We've had an opportunity to bring back a little more spirit to our state, and we've kind of dedicated our season to our state."

With all of the rescheduling because of the hurricanes, LSU played just two games in September, the second of which could have been disastrous. The Tigers blew a 21-point halftime lead to Tennessee and lost 30-27 in overtime at home.

There was restlessness and genuine concern on the Bayou.
Les Miles, in only his second game after taking over for Nick Saban, couldn't have gotten off to a shakier start.
But the Tigers picked up the pieces bit by bit and -- nine consecutive wins later -- here they are. Most impressively, they've played 10 straight weeks without a break.

"All of our backgrounds in coaching are to eliminate distractions," said Miles, doing his best to describe what September was like for his club. "That's the standard rule. But in this particular instance, you could not deny it.

"There were helicopters going overhead. There were volunteer armed forces. There was no denying that there was a real-life drama going on beside us."

On the field, the Tigers seemed to revel in the drama. They survived against Auburn in overtime and took down Alabama in overtime three weeks later, thanks to JaMarcus Russell's clutch touchdown pass.

The most harrowing moment for the Tigers, though, might have come last Friday when they had to thwart an Arkansas drive in the final minutes to escape with a 19-17 win.
"Like this team has done all year, when we needed to get it done with whatever unit happened to be on the field, we got it done," Miles said.

Generally, though, defense has been the unit of choice for the Tigers. During their nine-game winning streak, they haven't given up more than 17 points.

The Tigers, fourth in the latest BCS Standings, are at least in the position to climb into one of the top two spots in the final standings and play in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.

For that to happen, they probably need to win impressively over the Bulldogs, to help their cause in vaulting past No. 3 Penn State in the BCS standings and then have either Texas or Southern Cal lose this weekend.

A long shot? Probably.

But back on Sept. 26, the Tigers were a long shot to even be thinking about an SEC title.

The Bulldogs know the feeling; they have overcome their own obstacles.

"For our seniors to hear what they had to hear at the start of the year was tough," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. "They said, 'Hey, what about us? We're not that bad.' They felt a little bit slighted and underestimated."

Now they get a chance to be validated.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.