Georgia defense: LSU ‘hasn’t seen us yet’

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart give his assessment of LSU ahead of the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta. (Video by Chip Towers/AJC)

In nine years as a defensive coordinator and four as Georgia’s head coach, Kirby Smart has schemed for some of the most prolific offenses in college football history.

And although he has prepared for a total of nine SEC championship and national title games, he admitted during his weekly press conference Monday that he hasn’t seen anything like the LSU offense his Bulldogs will face Saturday in the 2019 SEC Championship game.

“As explosive a team as I have probably ever watched on tape,” said Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator for nine years. “I don't even know what the numbers say. Obviously, the numbers say they’re really good. But I don’t go by that. I go by what I see on tape.”

And what has he seen on tape?

“That there really aren’t weaknesses,” Smart added. “I mean, (they have) arguably one of the best backs in the country, just a vicious, attack-you, spin-you, hit-you back. In the biggest games, Clyde Edwards-Helaire has been one of the biggest players. (Quarterback) Joe Burrow speaks for himself. I could go on and on (about) wideouts, tight ends, they've got five, really, returning starters on their offensive line.”

Add it all up and comes out to an LSU offense that is averaging 48.7 points and 560.4 yards per game. As Smart alludes, Georgia has not faced a team like it this season — or ever, quite likely.

But there’s also this: LSU has not faced a defense like the one the Bulldogs will bring to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

No. 4 Georgia leads the SEC and is ranked second nationally in scoring defense at 10.4 points per game. The Bulldogs are one of just two teams in the country to have not allowed more than 20 points in a game this season (Clemson is the other).

Georgia is the only team in at least the last 20 years to not allow a rushing TD through the first nine games. Only Georgia’s 1968 SEC championship team has given up fewer points (9.8) in a season, and no other team has come close in the era of 12-game seasons.

As Georgia outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari pointed out Monday, “We haven’t played our best game as a defensive unit yet. … They have good players, great players, weapons all over the field. … But they haven’t seen us yet.”

Ed Orgeron doesn’t disagree with that assessment. The LSU coach speaks of the Georgia defense with the same level of admiration Smart does of the Tigers’ offense.

“The best defense we faced all year,” Orgeron said. “They'll pressure, they'll play man, they'll play zone. It's overall comprehensive, with the pass rush that they have and their abilities to cover one-on-one. I think that's what makes it outstanding.”

The closest game the Tigers played all season was a 23-20 win in Baton Rouge over Auburn. That’s the only defense Orgeron could compare to Georgia.

“They're very similar,” he said. “A little bit different in a couple of spots, but very similar.”

The Tigers’ offensive accomplishments this season could fill an entire page of newsprint. But it boils down, mostly, to what the quarterback is doing with the forward pass.

Burrow, a 6-foot-4, 216-pound graduate transfer from Ohio State by way of Ames, Iowa, has 4,366 yards and 44 touchdowns this season with just 6 interceptions and a 78.3 percent completion percentage.Mind-boggling passing stats, for sure.

But that’s not all the Tigers do. Edwards-Helaire is fourth in the SEC at 102.8 yards rushing a game and has scored an SEC-best 16 rushing TDs.

The Tigers have two 1,000-yard receivers in Ja’Marr Chase (1,457) and Justin Jefferson (1,092). They’re all working behind a veteran offensive line of juniors and seniors.

While Smart has a pair of defensive coordinators in Dan Lanning and Glenn Schumann working for him, he still is heavy-handed when it comes to strategy and implementation. He was asked Monday if any part of him relished the challenge of finding a way to slow down this LSU offensive juggernaut.

“I probably did until yesterday afternoon,” Smart quipped. “Then I started watching the tape. There are no weaknesses.”

The bottom line for Georgia is this: It must be able to cover LSU’s receivers one-on-one. The Tigers regularly line up with four wide receivers and often go with an empty backfield and five receivers or four wideouts and a back split-out.

The Bulldogs actually might be the better suited to defend that than any team LSU has faced this season. SEC Nation analyst Greg McElroy recently pointed out in a video breakdown how Georgia has one of the best man-coverage secondaries in college football this year.

That has only improved with the recent return of Tyson Campbell from a foot injury. With Campbell and follow cornerbacks Eric Stokes and D.J. Daniel, Georgia deploys three of the SEC’s fastest players and also brings in coverage-specialists Tyrique Stevenson and Divaad Wilson in nickel and dime situations.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have veteran safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte in the back end and both are capable of picking up one-on-one coverage. More importantly, they make sure everybody gets lined up correctly and nobody gets behind them.

Smart wasn’t ready to brag on his secondary until he sees what it can do on Saturday. But the Bulldogs are confident.

“I think you find out around the game time,” he said of their ability cover the Tigers one-on-one. “We’re certainly going to prepare as hard as we can and do the best job we can to prepare for a very talented offense. But you can’t line up in one thing against these guys and expect to be successful. At the same time, you can't have confusion and chaos. They feast on that.”

Another advent in the second half of the season for Georgia has been the development of freshman linebackers Nakobe Dean and Nolan Smith. Increasingly they’re on the field at inside and outside linebacker, respectively, on passing downs.

But it’s Georgia’s defensive-line play that has impressed Orgeron the most.

“I've watched a lot of their tape because I study the offensive lines that we’re going to go against and I think that they're very well coached,” said Orgeron, a defensive line coach by trade. “I think Tyler Clark is probably one of the best defensive lineman we’ve played all year. This is the best defense we've played all year and it starts with their defensive line. They’re very well coached. They're agile. They move. They can take on blocks, slant, pass-rush well. They do it all.”

If nothing else, the Bulldogs insist they’re not intimidated by LSU and their gaudy offensive numbers. They say they’re going to rely on the same strategies and principles that have gotten them to this point, which is into the SEC Championship game for a third consecutive year.

“We pride ourselves on focusing on our fundamentals and technique, literally what we’re supposed to do on every play,” senior noseguard Michael Barnett said. “We don’t worry about anything else. We get the play in and then focus in on shoulder tips, high-hat, low-hat, where’s the back at, different things like that. We focus on those little things and the big things take care of themselves.”

That’s a formula that has worked so far. Then again, neither of these teams have seen anything like the other. Something will have to give.