This is a fascinating mash up.
Saban’s the GOAT and he’s got the rings to prove it. His change in philosophy there is cited as gospel now as to how you have to win championships.
So maybe I should duck when I ask this, but, what if Kirby’s right? What if it’s still possible to win playing elite defense?
Now, Georgia’s only played a half season so far, but so far the results support Smart’s premise.
The No. 1-ranked Dawgs have given up 33 points in six games, all wins. Nobody’s scored more than 13 on Georgia, and two have scored nothing at all. Georgia’s defense has given up two touchdowns, the same amount it has scored, and also added a safety. The Bulldogs’ 5.5 points allowed per game would be the fewest of the century, ahead of 2011 Bama’s 8.15. (Lest anyone think it’s strictly a result of an early season schedule, Georgia’s points allowed per game drop to 5.2 against Power 5 teams only, compared with 7.8 for Alabama a decade ago.) By yards allowed per play, for which ESPN’s Stats & Information Group has data going back to 2004, Georgia’s 3.56 is just behind 2011 Bama’s 3.32 and 2004 North Carolina State’s 3.47. In expected offensive points allowed per play, Georgia’s -0.35 figure leads 2011 Bama’s -0.33 for first place since at least 2004.
With regard to that last stat, one little secret: playing elite defense means playing winning football, as this chart indicates.
Obviously, it’s a long way between now and January, but, for the sake of argument, let’s say Georgia’s success holds up all the way through to the end. What’s the lesson to be learned from that? I suspect some would dismiss it as a mere outlier, the exception that proves Saban’s rule.
Others, I’m sure, will point to this:
The most important area in which Smart has copied Saban is recruiting. Alabama was a singular recruiting force for most of Saban’s tenure, signing up the country’s No. 1 class every year from 2011 to 2017, according to the industry-consensus 247Sports Composite Team Rankings. The Tide are still mega-elite, and in 2021 they signed the highest-rated class in the history of recruiting rankings. Over the past half-decade, though, the Dawgs have joined the Tide in the highest tier of player acquisition. In 2016, Smart’s first year, Georgia had the sixth-most-talented roster among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, based on the recruiting ratings of its players in 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite. Smart signed up a couple of No. 1 classes of his own in 2018 and 2020, and by 2020, Georgia had narrowly passed Bama in its player ratings. In 2021, the Tide and Dawgs are basically tied at the top.
Well, duh. How is that any different than recruiting elite offenses? None of the teams that have successfully competed for CFP titles have been slouches on the recruiting trail. You’re not gonna win anything without having enough Jimmies and Joes first.
Like it or not for some, if Georgia grabs the brass ring, some of it has to be attributed to coaching philosophy and scheme.
Georgia’s defense is built for its time, and it shows on game days, too. With the nickel base defense all the rage now, the Dawgs line up with at least five defensive backs on the field on 68 percent of their snaps. Stopping the pass is where a defense butters its bread. A hint of that is that pass defense accounts for 76.2 percent of Georgia’s total defensive EPA so far, compared to 58.6 percent of Bama’s in 2011.
Watch enough of Georgia (it doesn’t take much), and you’ll see moments where the Bulldogs’ discipline and creativity mix with their talent to make opponents look bad.
If it happens, the offseason debate should be as fascinating as that Saban-Smart mash up. Along those lines, I have to give some credit to Stewart Mandel for having an open mind about it in his Mailbag today ($$):
We know offenses have taken over college football, and scoring at will (exaggerating a bit) is a DNA trait of the last several national champions. So realistically, can Georgia ride a defense to a championship, or is it a matter of time before the Dawgs meet their match on offense? — Kraig B, Atlanta
It’s true: The last national champion to rank lower than No. 3 nationally in offense was 2017 Alabama, and even that Jalen Hurts-led team ranked No. 13 (6.6 YPP). But Georgia’s defense so far is the most dominant the sport has seen in many years. The Dawgs are allowing a ridiculous 5.5 points per game. No team has allowed fewer than 10 points per game over an entire season since 2011 Alabama (8.8), whose defensive coordinator was one Kirby Smart. Georgia is also allowing the fewest yards per play (3.6) and lowest opposing passer rating (85.2) since that 2011 Alabama team. I did not think it was possible to put up those kind of numbers against today’s college offenses.
With a defense that dominant, Georgia doesn’t need to have an elite offense. It’ll presumably need to score some points if it runs into Alabama, or in a Playoff game against Ohio State (48.5 points) or Oklahoma (41.2). But there’s something many may be slow to recognize about this year’s Georgia team: So far, they’ve been capable of doing just that.
Even accounting for that 10-3 win over Clemson in Week 1, Georgia ranks No. 12 nationally in scoring offense (39.8)…
I completely get why there’s a “believe it when I see it” vibe around the nation’s No. 1 team. We’ve been fooled by Smart’s teams before. But you know who could care less about curses and narratives? Vegas. It’s pretty telling that Georgia is a massive 23.5-point favorite against No. 11 Kentucky. That’s a level of respect you usually only see for Alabama in some of its big SEC games. It tells me the oddsmakers don’t have the slightest concerns about UGA’s offense. I’m with them.