In 2011, five years ago this past Saturday, Alabama lined up against then-FCS Georgia Southern, a seeming breather before the Iron Bowl and its eventual appearance in the BCS championship, which it would win 21-0 over LSU for the national championship.
The game was never in doubt, as the Crimson Tide ran to a 17-0 lead en route to a 45-21 win. But the Eagles, who themselves would reach the FCS Championship game, gave Alabama more of a game than expected. Guided by coach Jeff Monken, the former Georgia Tech A-backs coach now at Army, and quarterback Jaybo Shaw, a Tech transfer, Georgia Southern racked up 341 yards of total offense and averaged 7.41 yards per play. One touchdown was off on an 82-yard run on a triple-option give to the B-back, the only run play that Alabama gave up that season of more than 40 yards.
The points, yards and yards-per-play average were easily season highs against the Alabama defense, which over the next three NFL drafts would have six first-rounders and 15 players selected overall. The game was the basis for a rant by Alabama coach Nick Saban last year in which he scolded media for presuming that the Tide would roll over an upcoming FCS opponent.
“I don’t think we had a guy on that field that didn’t play in the NFL, and about four or five of them were first-round draft picks, and I think that team won a national championship, but I’m not sure,” Saban said derisively. “And they run through our (expletive) like (expletive) through a tin horn, man, and we could not stop ’em. Could not stop ’em. Could not stop ’em. Because we couldn’t get a look in practice. We didn’t practice it right.”
Alabama’s defensive coordinator in that game? Kirby Smart.
Tech coach Paul Johnson was asked this week if he’d watched the game video in preparation for this week’s Tech-Georgia matchup.
“I’ve watched it.”
More than once?
“I don’t watch anything just once.”
The meaning and import of that five-year-old matchup may only reveal itself Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium. But if it meant nothing, Johnson wouldn’t have wasted his time watching it. When Tech faces a coach or team it hasn’t faced previously, Johnson and his staff have to rely on clues such as how the defensive coordinator or head coach lined up his defense against offenses similar to Tech’s, and Georgia Southern’s was a virtual copy of Johnson’s. Johnson said that he expected Georgia to stay in its 3-4 alignment, particularly given the trouble that Jackets encountered against Virginia’s 3-4 last Saturday. But the details of Georgia’s plans go far deeper than that.
On Monday, Smart made the standard acknowledgement from upcoming Tech opponents that preparing the defense for the Jackets would be difficult. Smart said that Georgia had practiced for Tech in the spring and in the preseason. In the offseason, his staff visited other coaching staffs that play Tech regularly to pick their brains.
During the Bulldogs’ bye week, he said, he called “around the country” to speak with colleagues and acquire more ideas for defending the spread-option offense. He has leaned on holdovers from Mark Richt’s staff, defensive assistant coaches Tracy Rocker and Kevin Sherrer, to get a sense of what has worked and what hasn’t in previous games against the Jackets. He recognized the important job that the offensive scout team had this week.
“Our scout team can simulate what most other offenses do,” Smart said. “It’s harder for us to simulate what Georgia Tech does. We have to do a great job with the planning, the understanding. They give you a lot of different looks and so preparation-wise, it’s just tougher.”
Tech offensive line coach Mike Sewak offered his insight into the Georgia Southern-Alabama matchup, including this little piece of trivia: Jackets graduate assistant Blake DeBartola played left tackle for the Eagles in that game.
“They did a good job,” Sewak said. “They came off the ball really well, got the thing on the perimeter, got some people knocked down on the ground, I thought, cutting some of those corners and safeties. I don’t think they were used to that and they got it out there on the edge and gave them an opportunity.”
This is hardly to suggest that the Bulldogs are doomed to repeat Alabama’s failures against Georgia Southern. Smart’s efforts to learn from Tech opponents indicate his realization that what he and Alabama did against the Eagles — particularly how they prepared — needed to improve. Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster, perhaps the Jackets’ greatest ACC nemesis, has made no secret of his fact-finding mission to Iowa in the winter of 2010 after the Hawkeyes beat the Jackets in the Orange Bowl.
Smart has also hired former Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder as a defensive analyst. VanGorder was available because he was fired earlier in the season from his job at Notre Dame. While the Irish ranked 103rd in total defense at the time of his dismissal, perhaps the more pertinent part of the VanGorder resume was that Notre Dame limited Tech to 216 rushing yards last season in a 30-22 win in South Bend, Ind.
VanGorder reportedly was on the Georgia staff before the Nov. 12 game against Auburn, whose offense is a cousin of Tech’s. The Bulldogs held the then-No. 9 Tigers to 164 yards of total offense and 3.0 yards per play in a 13-7 win. The points, yards and yards-per-play numbers were all the lowest of the Gus Malzahn tenure at Auburn, and impressively so.
The previous total-offense low for Auburn under Malzahn was 260 yards against LSU in 2015. Georgia improved upon that figure by 37 percent. Were the Bulldogs to do the same to Tech on Saturday — hold the Jackets to 37 percent below the standing total-offense low under Johnson (155 against Iowa in the aforementioned Orange Bowl) — the Jackets would gain 98 yards.
Johnson and Sewak said that VanGorder’s presence would not alter how the Jackets prepare for the Bulldogs.
“I would think it would probably more affect what Georgia wants to do,” Sewak said.
Georgia Southern, Notre Dame, Alabama — they may all have a say in who triumphs in Georgia-Georgia Tech.
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