ATLANTA — The SEC regular season ended right where many thought Georgia would be, but Brian Kelly’s LSU Tigers were not supposed to be here.
At least, not according to those who predicted LSU to finish fifth in the SEC West Division at the SEC Media Days in his same city last July.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (12-0, 8-0 SEC) are 17 1/2-point favorites to send the Bayou Bengals back to Baton Rouge with a loss, but no one at LSU is apologizing for their pending appearance at 4 p.m. on Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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“If you would have asked me that back in December of last year, then I would have been surprised, (but) right now I’m not really surprised,” LSU tailback Josh Williams said.
“I know all the work that we put in …. looking back on it, I believe we deserve to be here. We put in the time and effort. We incorporated a lot of discipline aspects to the team. I believe that has paid off.”
The Tigers and Bulldogs clinched their places in the SEC Championship Game nearly three weeks ago on Nov. 12.
LSU (9-3, 6-2) looked to have a chance of playing its way into the four-team CFP field until it was upset last Saturday at Texas A&M, 38-23.
That has taken some of the glimmer off the SEC title game — tickets are going at face value — but the Tigers still have a great deal to play for in Kelly’s first season as head coach.
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“You got to win it on the field,” Kelly said. “Our guys did a great job of playing their very best when their best was needed. Now we get an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country.”
It’s an LSU team that looks very different from the 2019 national championship squad coached by Ed Orgeron, obviously.
But also, it has a distinctly different look than last year’s team with 15 transfers — eight of which are starters.
Kelly, Notre Dame’s winningest coach, has worked quickly to put his imprint on the program by applying a detailed process of team accountability.
LSU has a so-called “SWAT” team conditioning program that both challenges and unites the players through challenging training sessions.
“Basically all our points, we point all our weightlifting sessions, we kind of add those together to see who has the highest score at the end of the week,” Williams explained. “That was new and effective, I feel like.”
Kelly also has the players do a daily survey, sharing with the strength and conditioning staff their sleep levels mean plans and personal wellness levels.
The LSU players describe Kelly’s practices to be like Georgia’s — fast-paced and intense.
“We do five-minute periods rather than longer periods,” Williams said. “We’re always running around the field, everything is in transition, everything’s movement and organized chaos.”
Linebacker Micah Baskerville shared how Kelly makes sure the Tigers are also mentally on top of their game.
“One thing that helps our mental preparation is just breathing, breathing, learning how to get to our optimal goal,” Baskerville said.
“Another thing is visualizing yourself making plays. He believes that if you see yourself there, it’s going to come to fruition.”
Most see Georgia as a slam-dunk winner on Saturday, but the LSU players see things differently.
“We all know what the task at hand is,” said Tigers team captain and defensive end BJ Ojulari.
“We know our potential. We know how we can play and the level we can play at.”