ATLANTA — LSU coach Brian Kelly said more than once in the aftermath of a 50-30 loss to Georgia that “the best team won” the SEC Championship Game on Saturday.
But the Tigers’ head coach was also correct in pointing out that LSU was only a handful of game-changing plays away from measuring up to the No. 1 team in the country.
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“In its totality, you’re talking about five or six plays where, look, could have, would have, should have, right?” Kelly said.
“The best team won today. I love the way our guys competed. They fought. That’s who they are. That’s the identity of this team all year.”
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The No. 14-ranked Tigers (9-4) were a 17 1/2 point underdog to the top-ranked Bulldogs (13-0).
And yet, LSU actually out-gained Georgia 549-529 yards.
The Tigers had an eye-opening 502 yards passing against a celebrated Bulldogs’ secondary despite having to go to its backup QB at halftime.
Starter Jayden Daniels was 16-of-24 passing for 208 yards with a TD and interception in the first half before having his ankle reinjured.
Redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier was 15-of-27 passing for 294 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception in the second half.
“The divide is not huge, but we got work to do,” said Kelly, who led LSU to a West Division title after his Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the preseason SEC Media Day picks.
“As I told our guys, it’s 24/7 … we got to continue to develop our football team. This foundation is really strong, and we’ll be able to continue to build on it.”
Kelly took full responsibility for a special teams miscue that gifted Georgia the opening touchdown.
The Tigers’ players were walking off the field after their field goal attempt was blocked in the first quarter, unaware that crafty Georgia senior Christopher Smith was on the verge of scooping up the ball and returning it 96 yards for a touchdown.
That was one of the pivotal plays that separated the teams — a 10-point swing.
“If we just do a little bit better job on a field goal situation, take (Smiths) 7 off the board, it’s 43 points,” Kelly said.
“Maybe we convert that (and score a TD), and it’s 37 — you got a one-score game, you know what I mean?” He said.
“Now you got a one-score game going into the fourth quarter, we get stopped on fourth and inches, that’s a pretty close game.”
But as Notre Dame’s winningest all-time head coach knows, there’s very little margin for error against a Kirby Smart team.
“When you’re playing the best team in the country for an SEC championship, those things are going to come back and affect the outcome,” Kelly said. “But as I told them in the locker room, we’ve got a great foundation.
“It’s a young football team that will take this lesson and build off of it.”