Can Georgia's offense smash-mouth its way past LSU in the SEC title game?

ATHENS, Georgia -- Compared to the offenses of other College Football Playoff contenders such as Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma, Georgia's might feel more like a Sunday drive in your grandfather's Cadillac.

With former LSU coach Les Miles behind the wheel.

No. 2 LSU, which plays No. 4 Georgia in Saturday's SEC championship game in Atlanta, averages 48.7 points per game. Only No. 1 Ohio State, led by former Bulldogs quarterback Justin Fields, has scored more often among FBS teams, with 49.9 points per game.

The Tigers also are second in total offense, at 560.4 yards per game, behind only No. 6 Oklahoma, which averages 564.3.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are 40th in scoring (32.9 points) and 55th in total offense (420.6 yards).

In many ways, the Bulldogs look much like what LSU used to be on offense, under Miles and then before current Tigers coach Ed Orgeron turned over the keys to co-coordinators Joe Brady and Steve Ensminger, who transformed the way the Tigers play with a wide-open, fast-paced spread offense.

Are the Bulldogs, who with a victory over LSU can reach the CFP for the second time in three seasons, the playoff contender the sport's offensive revolution left behind?

"If you can score points like they're doing, that's great," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "What's bad about that? I think we all want to do that some, but it's not who we are. We don't have a team built like that. We're built very differently."

Georgia's recipe for success under Smart is no secret. Behind its mammoth offensive line, Georgia is going to run the ball, play stout defense and try to wear down opponents in the second half.

"When you come play Georgia, you know what you're going to get -- a smashmouth offense," Bulldogs guard Cade Mays said. "We're going to try to run the ball."

Smart, a former Georgia defensive back and longtime Alabama defensive coordinator, might not have the DNA to spread the field, play up-tempo and try to outscore opponents, although the Bulldogs have used a no-huddle offense in two-minute possessions and other situations.

"Ed Orgeron, when he was at Ole Miss, controlled everything," said one SEC defensive coordinator. "Well, he realized at LSU that, 'You know what? I'm a defensive line coach, a good recruiter. I can motivate kids and organize. I'm not going to mess with the offense. I'm going to get people and let them do it.'

"[Nick] Saban has done the same thing at Alabama, a lot more of it than people realize, getting out of the way and letting offensive guys run the offense. Now, he sort of got trained into it by hiring [former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator] Lane Kiffin and not knowing what he was getting -- and Lane basically said without saying it, 'Get out of the way.' He didn't really say that, but he did what he wanted to and didn't care, and Nick saw that it worked and was like, 'OK.'"

In Smart's fourth season, his fingerprints still seem to be all over his team's ball-control offense. The Bulldogs rank in the middle of the pack in the SEC in scoring, rushing and passing.

Is that going to be enough against LSU, which is led by Heisman Trophy favorite Joe Burrow (a 90 in the PlayStation Player Impact Rating), an Ohio State transfer who already has broken the SEC single-season record with 4,366 passing yards and tied the league mark with 44 touchdowns? The Tigers also have Clyde Edwards-Helaire (94 rating), a 1,000-yard rusher, and Ja'Marr Chase (91 rating) and Justin Jefferson (81 rating), a pair of 1,000-yard wide receivers.

Can Georgia's offense keep up? Or will it look like Uga, its lovable English bulldog mascot, trying to chase down Usain Bolt?

"For us, I think it's just getting the whole unit to buy into what we're trying to do as an offense," Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm said. "For us, it's about playing tough, playing physical and being relentless. We want to go out and score points every time we get the ball."

Prior to this season, it was hard to argue with Smart's approach. In his second season in 2017, the Bulldogs claimed their first SEC championship in 12 years, their Rose Bowl victory and nearly their first national title in 37 years, losing to Alabama 26-23 in overtime in the CFP National Championship. Last season, Georgia nearly reached the CFP again, but it blew a two-touchdown lead in the second half of a 35-28 loss to the Crimson Tide in the SEC championship game.

The Bulldogs were 14th in the FBS in scoring (37.9 points) last season and 18th in total offense (464.9 yards), with a nearly equal balance in rushing (3,343 yards) and passing (3,165).

This season, however, has been a struggle on that side of the ball. The Bulldogs had four turnovers in a stunning 20-17 loss to South Carolina in two overtimes on Oct. 12. The next week against Kentucky, Georgia was shut out in the first half -- and booed at halftime by a home crowd -- before pulling away for a 21-0 decision in torrential rain and windy conditions. The Bulldogs passed for only 35 yards against the Wildcats.

It isn't like Georgia's offense is choosing to use flip phones on a G5 network. Early departures for the NFL and injuries have influenced game plans and playcalling. The team's top three pass-catchers from 2018 -- juniors Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman and Isaac Nauta -- left early for the NFL. Senior wide receiver Terry Godwin also departed, and then Smart dismissed top returning wideout JJ Holloman from the team in June because of an alleged domestic assault in 2018.

Miami transfer Lawrence Cager (92 PlayStation rating), the Bulldogs' most consistent receiver this season, was bothered by a shoulder injury and then suffered a season-ending ankle injury in practice a week ago. Freshman receiver George Pickens is suspended for the first half of the SEC championship game after he was ejected for fighting in last week's game at Georgia Tech.

The Bulldogs also have a new playcaller, James Coley, after former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney left for Tennessee.

"[The] biggest difference this year is who is healthy, who is out there playing," Smart said. "I mean, three guys are in the NFL who were out there playing last year and, really, five when you count [tailback Elijah] Holyfield and Nauta. So there's not been a level of consistency with the perimeter skill that there probably was last year. That's the biggest difference."

With so many changes, Georgia's offense has been a mixed bag this season. The Bulldogs have scored 40 points or more against only two Power 5 opponents -- 43-14 at Tennessee and 52-7 at Georgia Tech last week.

With Cager sidelined for most or all of the previous four games, Fromm completed less than 50% of his passes in each contest.

"As an offense, we want to go out there and make more explosive plays," Bulldogs wide receiver Tyler Simmons said. "We want to work on those things that you see other teams doing. I think as long as we're putting up enough points to win the game, we're doing our job."

Until now, Georgia has scored enough to win every game but one -- the shocking defeat at home against the Gamecocks.

What the Bulldogs have done up until now might not be enough against the Tigers, who have scored 40 or more in 10 of 12 games and 50 or more in six.

In other words, the Bulldogs are about to find out if defense does indeed still win championships.

"You've got to play good football to win, period," Smart said. "I don't know that the adage 'defense wins championships' stands up as much as it used to. When you saw scores from the '60s and the '70s and the '80s, it was indicative of defense compared to now. Now, it's like, 'I got to play pretty good defense and I got to score a lot of points. I can't play horrific defense. I can't play bad defense, but I might not have to be perfect,' is the way a lot of teams have had success. They probably take more chances and risk and they just score tons of points.

"An explosive offense allows you to play a certain way on defense too, because you know that you're going to score a certain amount of points. Sometimes that changes things. But you go over the history of the last 10 years, there's still been some really good defenses that have won national championships. The Alabama ones, the Clemson ones. A lot of them get overshadowed by really good offenses, but there's been some good defenses winning."

And that is Georgia's best hope this season. The Bulldogs led the SEC in scoring defense (10.4 points), run defense (71 yards) and total defense (257 yards). Opponents have converted only 28% of third-down plays and scored touchdowns on just eight of 21 red zone attempts. Georgia has allowed only one rushing touchdown this season, the fewest by an FBS team in a 12-game schedule since at least 2004, according to data from TruMedia.

While teams such as Alabama and LSU have opened up their offenses in recent years, Georgia doesn't seem to be in a hurry to join the revolution. With three straight SEC East titles, does Smart even need to change his approach?

"Right now, it's hard to argue with the success that Kirby's had," said former Bulldogs quarterback Eric Zeier, who works as an analyst on the school's radio network. "I think what would dictate change would be how we perform in a game like the one we have coming up on Saturday. I will say this: The style of offense you play can dictate how you look and how you feel on the defensive side of the ball, as well. At Georgia, you're practicing against big and physical teams constantly. When you start to spread it out and open things up, that's what you see every day. It's a little bit different mentality, and I think it affects how your team functions and what its identity is."

Smart argues that Alabama and LSU also have record-setting quarterbacks and a deep group of talented receivers to make the changes they did. ESPN's Mel Kiper has Burrow and Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa among the top five picks for next spring's NFL draft, even after Tagovailoa suffered a dislocated hip. Kiper ranks Alabama's Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith and LSU's Justin Jefferson among the top 10 receivers available for the 2020 draft.

"It wasn't like all of the sudden Alabama just decided they were going to throw the ball all the time," Smart said. "They got a stellar group of wideouts in one gathering. It was like they all came in at once and they became really good players. Same thing at LSU. They've had good receivers over the years, but they got a really stellar group at the same time, along with a transfer quarterback that has been impeccable. I don't know that philosophically those two guys just made huge changes, as much as they inherited two really good quarterbacks that are unique that can do special things and they've got some special players around them."

On Saturday, even against the high-scoring Tigers, the Bulldogs are going to try to do what they do -- and make no apologies for it.

They're going to try to run the damn ball and play good defense.