Generational defense meets generational quarterback.
Daily Archives: December 4, 2021
Let’s face it, at some point in time this season, almost all of us have been in the place Matt Hinton describes.
By sheer volume, Georgia’s starting quarterback has generated more angst over the past 5 years than any other position in college football.
On some level, in fact, you could say the ever-evolving situation behind center also serves as a window into the emotional trajectory of the fan base. To be a Dawgs fan is to have staked out a position on Jacob Eason vs. Jake Fromm, and Jake Fromm vs. Justin Fields, and on whether either question was ever actually up for debate. It’s to have watched Fields fulfill his potential elsewhere, prized transfer come and go without taking a snap, and another prized transfer languish on the sideline for reasons no one can seem to explain. At the same, it’s to have watched Alabama and LSU ride juiced-up spread offenses to their umpteenth national titles while Georgia’s championship drought rolled on into its fourth decade.
It’s to look year after year at arguably the deepest, most talented roster in the game, listen to the punchlines about coming up short when it really counts, and be constantly reminded: The only thing missing is an elite quarterback.
And in 2021, specifically, it’s to watch as the weeks have rolled by, the wins have racked up, and the most important position on the field has been seized by the most unlikely candidate of them all – a former walk-on with no NFL prospects, who for most of his career in Athens has had “career backup” written all over him – and to ask yourself: Is this The Guy? This guy?
If you’re not asking that question, it’s probably because, like me, you trust Todd Monken. And if you are today, then it’s probably because of this:
The fact is, the lingering questions about Bennett’s ceiling against Playoff-caliber defenses can’t be addressed until he actually steps on the field against a Playoff-caliber defense. The closest approximations he’s faced so far this season have yielded his best performance (vs. Auburn) and his worst (vs. Florida), both in games the defense had well in hand from start to finish. (Bennett didn’t play in the opener against Clemson, which memorably held Georgia’s offense to 3 points with Daniels at the helm and has continued to field an elite defense in the meantime.) Keeping pace with Alabama, an explosive attack that is actually capable of putting some points on the board against any defense, will be an entirely different challenge.
No, this isn’t the 2020 edition of Alabama, but today’s opponent is easily the best team, overall, Georgia has faced this season to date. Remember, they’re the only other SEC team besides Georgia with a net ypp figure north of 2.0. Chopped liver, they ain’t. So, asking how Stetson will fare today is a fair question, except I wouldn’t phrase it as a matter of keeping pace with an explosive offense as much as asking how he’ll respond if the situation develops into the first close second half he’s experienced all year. (Last year didn’t go well, but, again, this Georgia team isn’t playing that ‘Bama team, so who cares?)
If that’s my first question about today’s game, here’s my second: what happens on third down? According to SECStatCat’s data, it’s going to be the most interesting down of the game, no matter who has the ball, but the reasons are virtually opposite.
For ‘Bama, it’s a money down out of sheer necessity.
From the very get-go this fall, Alabama’s O-line has generated poor rushing cushion, failed to maintain clean pockets, and logged a good deal of misfires. In fact, Alabama has been so bad in some respects that even lowly Vanderbilt has preferable figures. Excluding non-conference and garbage time snaps, the Tide will come to Atlanta with the SEC’s worst rush yard before contact average (1.2), 2nd-worst Pressure Rate (37.7%), 3rd-worst HAVOC Rate (37.8%), and 5th-worst Sack Rate (7.4%). Over a fifth of their designed rush attempts have faced initial contact behind the line of scrimmage, and a seventh of their plays can be constituted as “broken”.
These bumblings have mostly blundered Alabama’s early down efforts. With nearly a third of their plays suffering from a form of havoc, the Tide represents the SEC’s median in both Success Rate and Yards/Play in league play. The middling production has resulted in the conference’s 4th-lowest Early Down Conversion Rate — meaning Alabama relies heavily on 3rd downs to sustain drives. Setting yourself up for regular do-or-die opportunities is normally not recommended.
Luckily for them, their Young Gun has been one of the nation’s best at exhibiting value on the money down. Within SEC play, the Tide’s such 51% Passing Success Rate holds a five point gap over the next team in line. Over a sixth of their throws have gained at least 20 yards. When including scrambles, 12 carries have notched at least ten yards. This translates to a conference-best 23.4% Explosive Play Rate and 8.3 Yards/Play. Considering the offensive line has allowed a deplorable 57% Pressure and HAVOC Rate in these spots, that’s undeniably remarkable. The data backs the Good, Ole-Fashioned Eye Test.
While StatCat doesn’t recommend the dangerous habit of banking on the do or die down, the Tide have no choice but to ride its hot hand.
They really have no choice, but it’s wild how much their offense transforms from first and second downs to third. And it has worked: “The Tide’s potency and pre-snap activity joins the squad’s collective dip on the statsheet, but no offense averaged more yards/game in SEC play this season than Alabama; and they did average over 37 points/game in those contests.” Can Lanning and Smart dial up something that consistently undercuts that, or at least slows it down significantly?
Georgia, as I hinted before, is the polar opposite: dominant on first and second down, not so much on third. Unfortunately, that starts with Bennett.
Despite the excellent positioning, Georgia isn’t perfect. And a good deal falls on the shoulders of its sprite QB. I’ll have more on Bennett later. But even though his play has improved, he still has glaring issues carrying over from last year. Bennett throws an uncatchable attempt on a fifth of his chances and has an Interceptable Pass Rate well below the conference mean. Though he started the season on pace to be the one of the most accurate passers targeting beyond ten yard downfield ever, he finished with a Depth Adjusted Accuracy% under 50% when facing conference opponents. For the most part, his results hardly can be challenged, but his process hints of a potential downturn facing a Nick Saban defense.
Moreover, Bennett has simply been a bad passer on 3rd down. Though he has managed to enhance his Success Rate to where he is no longer the conference floor and has a handful of nice scrambles, SB4 has only converted ten of his 33 such chances against conference foes. He has been just as likely to throw an uncatchable pass in these spots. And despite being gifted a top5 Pressure Rate, his 3rd Down Yards/Attempt (5.1) and Depth Adjusted Accuracy% (40.8%) are bottom5 in league play. Additionally, his Interceptable Pass Rate climbs into the double-digits. Among SECers with at least a dozen attempts, no one has a lower average distance to gain than his 6.9 figure. That paired with a relatively average 50% Rushing Success Rate on the money down has seen 62% of UGA’s latter down plays end with negative EPA, which ranks 98th per cfp-graphs.com. This is a massive problem for Georgia and an incredible opportunity for the Tide to potentially upend this offense.
So, if third down is one to embrace for Alabama, it’s one to avoid if you’re Georgia. And this may very well be where Todd Monken has painted his masterpiece this season: Georgia is outstanding at avoiding third down on offense.
Potent and consistent, UGA has crushed it on first and second downs behind a 0.26 EPA/play — good for 2nd in the country. The Dawgs have only logged nine 3-and-Outs in meaningful minutes against SEC defenses. Naturally, these ingredients have helped the Dawgs sport the gold medal in TD Rate (8.3%), Points/Drive (4.6), and Scoring Drive Rate (62.2%). The latter is 18 points better than the next clip in line.
Can Saban and Golding dial up something that takes Monken out of his comfort zone? Nobody’s really done that since Clemson’s secondary came out in soft coverage in the opener.
… getting Georgia into those situations will be awfully tough. Over 77% of their conversions occur on first or second down. Still against the meat of their schedule, the Dawgs’ worst inefficiency was heightened.
According to the SP+, Georgia’s hardest defensive opponents have been Clemson (3), Auburn (20), Arkansas (32), Kentucky, (34), and Tennessee (35). In these games, Georgia’s offense was solid but not overly spectacular. The Dawgs posted a 48% Success Rate and scored on nearly 60% of its drives while maintaining its wonderful levels of limiting defensive disruption. They experienced a dip in big runs, but potent passing was comparable to their overall numbers. However, these are the matchups where UGA struggled the most to maintain drives. Even omitting the Clemson game, over a quarter of its drives in these games resulted in a 3-and-Out. Only about a quarter of 3rd downs through the air were converted, which hammers the point home that those instances will be quite important in Atlanta.
All told, I’m finding that SSC’s conclusion mirrors my own about today:
I think Alabama wins if it can continue its 3rd down magic and capture at least four explosive gains through the air. Bryce Young has been sensational under duress and has copious clutch plays during his first year as a starter. With how ineffective the Crimson Tide’s down-to-down run game has been in SEC play, it’s hard to imagine their O-Line miraculously figuring it out against one of the most immovable fronts in the history of the sport. And Young will have to make some plays and pad his Hesiman profile with some splashes. Nickel and diming could be the path. But if Alabama can figure out a way to turn four passes into four scoring chances, they might have a shot at the upset.
Again Stetson Bennett has shown to be an unsteady passer under pressure and on 3rd downs. Now, he gets to face Nick Saban. Assuming this matchup plays out, the Tide’s defense should be able to make things competitive. However, that’s assuming Alabama doesn’t get absolutely worked on early downs. Still with how prone Bennett is to turnover-worthy plays, safe money is on Alabama’s defense coming away with a takeaway or two. If they can survive on first and second, and thrive on third, there’s a chance the Tide pulls this off.
I think Georgia wins if it can control the line of scrimmage and make sure Stetson Bennett doesn’t screw it up. Look, the Bulldogs’ path to victory is a lot more straightforward than Alabama’s. Even for the team with the best rush yard before contact average, steering the Tide’s front isn’t an easy assignment. Bennett will have to make some throws. But, it’s hard imagining the gameplan calling for him to attempt over 24 passes. If the Bulldogs can limit his involvement and SB4 can find occasional situational wins, their rock solid defense presumably should have them in good position to secure the No. 1 seed.
If things get rocky for the Bulldogs, the question is: How long is Bennett’s leash? Though Alabama has made some postseason switches at QB in recent memory, what would it take for JT Daniels to lead the offense? His numbers are inflated but still incredibly satisfying. A strong defensive performance would make that thought moot. But don’t think Georgia can skate by Nick Saban if they have to overly rely on Bennett.
It’s weird to think a description of Alabama’s day boils down to saying they have a legitimate puncher’s chance to win the game, but without an effective running game and consistent play from their o-line, along with their ILBs being susceptible in pass coverage (and, boy, is it fun to watch the other team be the one that has trouble handling throws to tight ends), I don’t see a path to victory for them that doesn’t involve monster games from their two best players and a few big hits in the passing game. Mind you, Alabama is certainly capable of all that.
For Georgia, it’s all about whether Alabama can knock them out of the comfortable groove they’ve been in ever since the season opener. Given that Alabama seems to have more flaws to exploit than does Georgia, I think that’s going to be tough, especially if they walk out there with the same mental approach Smart has instilled in them all season.
But that’s the GOAT on the other sideline. I think Georgia wins today, but I’m far less certain they clear the spread. The thing is, I couldn’t care less about the spread. If the confetti drops on a winning Georgia team today, I’m all good.
Where are your head and heart at today?
Kirby, don’t say Erik Evans hasn’t warned you.
I’m feeling remarkably upbeat about today. I think it’s because I have zero expectations for today, and have essentially written off this game since late September (admit it, you did too). But despite some unsteady contests, where the offense shows up one week, and the defense the next, this team has made it to 11-1 and has claimed its division.
There is literally no pressure on the Tide here. But there has been months of disregard, disrespect, and the Tide rightly enters as a rare underdog.
But should they be? Given the schedule that they played vs. that of Georgia? The advanced stats don’t see it that way — and Kirby knows those numbers as well as anyone. For all of the ballyhoo surrounding the ‘Dawgs, and all of the negging of the Crimson Tide, this game is very much a tossup.
That could be why it looks like you couldn’t drive a greased needle up his butt with a tin of Crisco and a sledgehammer.
No pressure, Bulldogs. No pressure.
Yes, the poor ol’ Tide, having faced months of disregard and disrespect. I mean, just look at the polls and rankings, where Alabama is *** checks notes *** ranked in the top four of all three. If that isn’t classic bulletin board material, I don’t know what is.
If there is literally no pressure on ‘Bama, that’s only because they’re sure if they play a close game and lose today they’ll still be in the CFP field. That’s gotta be rough, Erik.
A note from Art Briles’ conference commissioner:
Tl; dr version: screw the SEC.
Ohio State quarterback Quinn Ewers plans to enter the transfer portal after one season with the Buckeyes, the university confirmed on Friday evening. Ewers, who hailed from Texas high school football powerhouse Southlake Carroll, was originally a member of the 2022 recruiting class, but reclassified to the Class of 2021 as the No. 1 overall recruit to join the Buckeyes this season.
… Though he was not a factor on the field for the Buckeyes, Ewers capitalized on new rules allowing college athletes to benefit off their name, image and likeness, signing an NIL deal reportedly worth $1.4 million over three years. A principle factor in Ewers’ decision to reclassify and enroll at Ohio State a year early was the lack of NIL rights for high school players in Texas.
Kid bailed on his home state because he couldn’t get paid, grabbed a mil without throwing a pass in anger, bails again and could still be signed by a second school before the recruits in his original class sign their NLIs. True baller, man.
If he doesn’t make it as a quarterback, he’s got a bright future working for Jimmy Sexton.
Corso’s picking Alabama in an upset today, because Alabama is the more desperate team.
This whole clip is awesome to watch, but in particular, check out the second play, with the focus on Tindall and Dean.
That is a textbook example of coaching ’em up.
A saw a reference somewhere about Alabama’s rushing game over the course of the season, so I thought I’d head over to cfbstats.com for the deets. It ain’t pretty.
And Brian Robinson is a game time decision on whether he plays? Woo, boy. If ‘Bama wins today, Bryce Young is the man.