ATLANTA — No. 3 Texas Christian had fallen in overtime. No. 4 Southern California? Embarrassed out West.
Surely, top-ranked Georgia — the behemoth that won last season’s national championship, the juggernaut whose narrowest margin of victory this year came in an intrasquad scrimmage, the red-and-black program that looks more look like a blue blood just about every weekend — could restore order when it met a three-loss Louisiana State team in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Yes, of course. But the scoreboard read 50-30, Georgia, only after things got as weird as they sometimes do after dark down in Baton Rouge.
With less than four minutes to play in the first quarter, No. 14 L.S.U. was looking for the afternoon’s inaugural score. The Tigers lined up for a 32-yard field goal, only to see it blocked by Nazir Stackhouse, a towering defensive lineman. The ball rolled toward Chris Smith, a senior from Atlanta.
He paused. He peered around, seemingly as confused as a newcomer (or, let’s be fair, a native) trying to figure out which Atlanta street named “Peachtree” he needed to drive.
L.S.U., though, had three problems: that Smith was on a football field; that the ball was, in fact, a live one; and that Smith’s potential playacting had given him a head start on a 96-yard dash to the end zone.
Flummoxed but still very much in the fight, the Tigers did not wait long for retaliation and responded with a three-play drive that ended with a 53-yard touchdown pass from Jayden Daniels to Kayshon Boutte. Georgia promptly added another touchdown of its own, if one without the befuddled dramatics of its first score.
So, it was quite a first quarter in Atlanta.
Nine seconds into the second, with L.S.U. trailing by only a score, Daniels’s pass to Jack Bech ricocheted off the wideout’s yellow helmet, leaving the ball to be cradled by Smael Mondon Jr. of Georgia. The Bulldogs, abruptly empowered at the L.S.U. 22, picked up a touchdown on the very next play.
Of course, on its subsequent possession, Georgia missed a field goal for only the third time this season. But as the L.S.U. band edged toward the field minutes before halftime, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett connected with Darnell Washington (a 6-foot-7 tight end quite reasonably described by L.S.U. Coach Brian Kelly as “a large person”) for a 14-yard touchdown pass to help push the Georgia lead to 21 points.
The band was still standing around, still waiting to raise its tubas and trumpets, when Bennett passed 3 yards up the middle to Dillon Bell for a touchdown. That gave Georgia more points (35) than there were seconds remaining in the first half (32). L.S.U. tried — and, in a turn of events for both teams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, actually made — a field goal to end the half.
But one of the overlooked letdowns of the SEC, which defensibly holds itself out as the nation’s premier college football conference, is that its title game is not always all that compelling. Since the league first held a championship game in 1992, eight such matchups have been decided by a touchdown or less.
And after L.S.U.’s debacle at Texas A&M last weekend, when the Tigers lost by 15 points to a team that had not beaten anyone but Massachusetts since September, Saturday’s game in Atlanta was unlikely to change fundamentally the playoff prospects of either team.
Georgia was aiming for the top seed; L.S.U. was playing for dignity and the consolation prize of a conference championship, since no team with two losses, much less three, has ever reached the playoff. The four-team playoff field will be announced on Sunday, with the semifinal games scheduled for New Year’s Eve.
For part of the second half, L.S.U. seemed to play without heed to the history of title game blowouts, or to the probability that the Tigers had been eliminated from playoff contention.
L.S.U. recovered a Georgia fumble early in the third quarter. Three plays later, with a magnificent leap, Malik Nabers caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from Garrett Nussmeier, the L.S.U. backup who entered the game after Daniels had limped away from the field around the intermission.
L.S.U. soon got the football again, but the Bulldogs’ defense, so often stout under Coach Kirby Smart, stopped the Tigers on fourth and 1 at the Georgia 5.
Similarly revived, the Georgia offense assembled an eight-play drive that largely relied on blazing runs, including one that lasted for more than half of the field, for a touchdown. L.S.U. ran a touchdown in later in the third quarter but missed a 2-point conversion, a score made less significant when Georgia sent Kenny McIntosh darting rightward for what was his second touchdown of the day.
When Georgia reached the “half a hundred” threshold that a longtime nemesis, Steve Spurrier of Florida, used to seek, a contingent of L.S.U. fans concluded they had seen enough, or at least wanted to beat traffic. There would be assorted other bursts of activity, but an interception near the goal line had already sent more of them fleeing.
They had, in some respects, seen the inverse of this particular show in the relatively recent past.
The teams had last met in the SEC championship game in 2019, when a swaggering L.S.U. squad marched into Atlanta, routed Georgia and locked up the No. 1 seed. The Tigers went on to win the national championship before they endured two years of misery and the midseason ousting of the coach who had led them to the title.
Perhaps L.S.U., which came nowhere near repeating its championship run, is on the brink of a resurgence. But Georgia has gone 36-3 since it crumbled before the Tigers. By mid-January, with a title game berth a distinct possibility, it could be 38 victories.