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Michael Cunningham: In era of wide-open offense, great defense puts Georgia on top

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Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart argues a call by officials during the second half against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Athens, Georgia.

Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart argues a call by officials during the second half against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022, in Athens, Georgia. Georgia won 37-14. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

It wasn’t long ago that Georgia was behind the times in big-time college football.

The Bulldogs were trying to win national championships with great defense and a conservative approach on offense. Meanwhile, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and LSU were ringing up points on the way to the College Football Playoff. They had wide-open offenses with top NFL prospects at quarterback and the skill positions.

Well, look at what’s happened since then.

Those teams still score a lot of points for the most part, while the Bulldogs are relatively ordinary on offense. But Georgia is the best team in the country because no one plays defense like the Bulldogs. That’s been true since the start of last season, and it really has come into focus as CFP contenders faded in recent weeks while capitulating on defense.

Ohio State surrendered 45 points and a program-record 8.8 yards per play to Michigan. South Carolina hung 63 points on Tennessee, which also allowed Bama’s offense to score 42. The Crimson Tide gave up 52 points to Tennessee and 32 against LSU. Clemson allowed 30-plus points three times and lost twice. TCU and (especially) USC just aren’t that good on defense.

It’s hard to imagine Georgia’s defense being that inept. The Bulldogs haven’t allowed more than 22 points this season (Kent State scored six points in garbage time to reach that mark). They gave up more than 18 points just once in 2021, to Alabama in the SEC Championship game. Georgia’s defense proved that 34-point tally was a one-off by holding Bama to a season-low 18 points in the national title game.

That’s what LSU will be up against Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“They’re tough-minded, they play physical, they play downhill,” Tigers coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “We’ve obviously seen a lot of it (in the SEC), but you’ve got to make sure you minimize the negative plays against a defense like this. You can get into some bad plays, and now you are behind the chains. They get you to third down, now there’s a lot of things they can do.”

Georgia’s defense shouldn’t be so good after so many good players departed following last season. NFL teams selected eight Bulldogs defenders in this year’s draft, including five in the first round. Kirby Smart’s recruiting is great, but that’s a lot of talent and experience to replace.

Yet Georgia’s defense is better. I always assume Smart will field a good defense, but even I didn’t see that coming.

Georgia is giving up slightly more points per game, 11.3 this season vs. 10.2 last season, but the defense rates higher in Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric (adjusted for situation, tempo and opponent). The gap between Georgia’s defense and an average unit is larger this season, as is the gap between Georgia’s defense and the second best (Iowa).

The Bulldogs can make high-scoring offenses look awful. They did it to Alabama in last season’s national title game. They’ve done it to Tennessee in back-to-back years. They are going to do it to LSU on Saturday.

The Tigers scored 30 points or more against four league opponents this season. However, only one of those foes, Alabama, ranks in the top half of the SEC in points allowed. LSU couldn’t do better than 23 points against two others, Tennessee and Texas A&M.

Alabama’s defense used to be the national standard. Nick Saban’s teams never ranked below seventh in defensive SP+ from 2008-20. They were No. 1 in seven of those 13 years. Alabama was ninth in 2021 and 12th so far this season.

Saban revived Bama as a national title contender when he reluctantly accepted that winning big requires opening up the offense. But the Crimson Tide have regressed by their standards because their defense is merely good rather than great. Georgia has nudged ahead of the Tide by being better at keeping teams from scoring.

When Smart’s teams have disappointed, much of the talk centered on the offense. The Bulldogs lost the 2018 national championship game to Alabama while scoring 23 points. The next year they were held to 16 points in a loss at LSU. That left them no room for error against Alabama in the SEC Championship game. The Crimson Tide came from behind to win while holding Georgia to seven points after halftime.

In 2019, Georgia scored only 17 points in that weird home loss to South Carolina. The Bulldogs still had a chance to make the CFP that year but lost 37-10 to LSU in the SEC title game. That’s when Smart famously declared that the perception he wants to play “man ball” is wrong, it was just that Georgia didn’t have the wide receivers necessary to spread opponents out and throw the ball.

What was overlooked in those losses is that, for most of them, Smart’s defense wasn’t good, either. The thought was that the Bulldogs wouldn’t be a true contender until they could win shootouts. What’s happened instead is Georgia rarely gets into shootouts because the other team struggles to score. That’s why it’s hardly mattered that Georgia’s 2022 offense isn’t as good as last year’s group.

The Bulldogs are scoring about the same number of points per game (38.6 vs. 38.2), but that top-line number flatters them. Georgia’s offense slipped from second to 21st in SP+. Much of that decline is because the Bulldogs don’t produce as many big plays and finish red-zone trips with TDs less often.

(Georgia does score points on 97% of its red-zone trips, the best mark in the nation per cfbstats.com. Kicker Jack Podlesny has become even more reliable than predecessor Rodrigo Blankenship, who won the Lou Groza Award in 2019. A good kicker is a great complement to a defense that rarely allows opponents to reach the end zone.)

Smart hired Todd Monken to run the offense before last season with good results. Kelly, who faced Georgia twice as Notre Dame coach, said Monken “has got a creative bent to him that’s a little bit different than what they had in ‘17 and ‘19.” The Bulldogs are better on offense since Monken started calling the plays. That’s even though quarterback Stetson Bennett still doesn’t have the kind of elite wide receiver that played for every other recent national championship winner.

Bennett and the Bulldogs have a great defense to fall back on when the points aren’t plentiful. That’s what has Georgia on top in this era of wide-open offensive football.

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