ATHENS — Time for the Southeastern Conference to start devouring its own, and see who survives at the end.
Fourth-ranked LSU faces No. 18 Georgia today for the first of what figure to be a series of elimination games within the league that has produced the last three national champions.
No wonder Bulldogs coach Mark Richt pulled a Rex Ryan, urging Bulldog fans to be at their loudest for this huge game between the hedges.
"I want to encourage all our fans to get jacked up and ready to go," the low-key Richt said. "I want our students to become as crazed as always. I want them to make the pregame warmup an exciting time. Get in the stands as fast as you can because this is going to be a special game. It’s the kind of game everyone dreams about."
This is actually the first in a series of playoff-like games that will narrow the field to two teams for the SEC championship game on Dec. 5. If past years are any indication, the winner in Atlanta that day will likely claim a spot in the BCS title game.
For now, the powerful conference has three of the top four teams in the Associated Press rankings, led by defending national champion and still-No. 1 Florida. Alabama is third and LSU next, the first time a conference has had so many teams this high since the final AP poll of the 1971 season.
This game could start to shake things out just a bit, and next week will be especially telling when LSU hosts Florida in Baton Rouge and Alabama hits the road to face No. 21 Mississippi, which had been a top-10 team until its stunning loss at South Carolina.
While there’s always the potential for upsets — especially in this conference — the title race will likely be decided by a handful of games, a list that also includes Georgia vs. Florida on Oct. 31 and LSU vs. Alabama on Nov. 7.
"Everybody talks about rankings. Rankings have never made any difference to me and not to our football team," LSU coach Les Miles said. "We understand we earn where we finish. The No. 4 ranking is certainly a spot, and that’s it. It’s close enough to be where you want to be in the end, but there’s no position except for the final ballot. When we get to the end of the season, that’s where we want to be ranked highly."
In reality, this game is probably more important for Georgia (3-1, 2-0 SEC) than it is for LSU (4-0, 2-0), since the Tigers have those other two blockbusters still looming on their schedule. If the Bulldogs can get past this one, they’d have a realistic shot at being undefeated in the conference going into that game formerly known as the Cocktail Party, the one down in Jacksonville against Tim Tebow and the Gators.
"We’re pretty jacked up about this one," Richt said.
Even though the Bulldogs have struggled on defense and have one of the worst turnover ratios in the country (minus-nine), the coach believes his team has a legitimate shot at the conference title. This is Georgia’s chance to prove it deserves a place alongside the Big Three after pulling out last-minute wins against South Carolina and Arizona State.
"Right now, I feel energized," Richt said. "I’m very excited about where we are going. I think a lot of that has to do with LSU coming to town and us having chance to play well. Hopefully, we’ll get the victory and hopefully that will put us in position to compete in the SEC."
Both teams have dangerous receivers, though LSU’s big, physical secondary appears better suited to defending Georgia’s 6-foot-4 A.J. Green — the SEC’s leading pass-catcher — than the Bulldogs’ undersized secondary going against 6-3 Brandon LaFell and 6-5 Terrance Tolliver.
"They’re very good," said Georgia safety Bryan Evans, who comes up an inch short of 6 feet but is still taller than cornerbacks Brandon Boykin (5-10) and Prince Miller (5-8). "They’re both bigger receivers. They both have deceptive speed. They both catch the ball well in the air. They’re a pretty good double threat."
Green is a dynamic player coming off an eight-catch, 153-yard performance against Arizona State. He hauled in a 56-yard touchdown, came down with another long pass that set up the game-winning field goal — and, oh yeah, he also blocked an Arizona State field goal try late in the fourth quarter.
LSU is one of the few teams with a secondary that matches up reasonably well to Green. Cornerback Patrick Peterson, who figures to be trailing Green all over the field, is 6-1 and 211 pounds. Safety Chad Jones (6-3, 225) will likely roll over to help in coverage.
"I like big challenges," Green said. "It brings my game to a different level."
Both teams want to run the ball better. LSU ranks 10th in the SEC at 130.2 yards per game. Georgia is next on the list, next-to-last at just 112.2 and still trying to sort out its tailback situation. Richard Samuel started the first four games, but largely shared the job with Caleb King the last two weeks.
Still, Miles isn’t going to get too carried away with running the ball if the other team is intent on stopping it, as Mississippi State was a week ago. The Bulldogs limited LSU to 30 yards on 31 carries, but the Tigers threw for a season-high 233. Sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson is still a work in progress, but his confidence is growing with every game.
"A team that lines up against you that says that they don’t want Charles Scott and Keiland Williams to carry the ball, they should have to pay a terrible price," Miles said. "The ability to throw deep balls and the ability to move the chains has to be in our ready list."