“Maybe the best defensive team in the country all the way around when you talk about stopping the run, having good pass defense, getting off the field on third down,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said Monday. “They’ve been very efficient and effective in every part of the game. They have good players that can rush the passer, they can play the point (of attack). A really good defensive team.”
The adage in college football used to be that championships are won with defense. That was certainly the case for many of the national titles won by Alabama under Saban, some of them with Kirby Smart as defensive coordinator. But that hasn’t been the case of late.
The last three national champions featured offenses that ranked among the most prolific in the country. LSU was No. 1 in both scoring and total yards. Clemson was fourth in points (44.3 pg) and third in yards (535.6 pg) in 2018. Bama was 15th in scoring in 2017, the year it beat the Bulldogs with Tua Tagovailoa in the national championship game in Atlanta.
In fact, you have to go back to 2015 to find a national champion that wasn’t ranked among the nation’s Top 15 teams in scoring. That was Alabama, which was 30th that season, Smart’s last as the Tide’s defensive coordinator.
“I think college football as a whole is more offensive (oriented) because the rules lend it to be that way in terms of allowing linemen to be a little further down field in college,” Smart said Monday. “So, the RPO (run-pass option) game gets to be big. You can do tempo in college football at a lot higher rate. Tempo hasn’t been successful in the NFL because you get your quarterback hit.”
The Bulldogs are attempting to up the ante on offense themselves. While Georgia has not been inept on offense during Smart’s five-year tenure as head coach, it hasn’t been nearly as prolific as some other SEC teams.
The 2018 Bulldogs finished 14th nationally in scoring and 18th in total yards. The 2017 squad was 20th and 32nd, respectively. Last year, Georgia dipped to 49th and 61st.
This year, Georgia resolved to incorporate more RPO and tempo. Smart hired Todd Monken from the Cleveland Browns as offensive coordinator and charged him with that responsibility.
Returns are incomplete. The Bulldogs enter Saturday’s contest ranked 22nd in scoring (36 ppg) and 34th in total offense (420 ypg).
“When we execute, we are hard to stop,” Smart said of Georgia’s offense. “When we don’t execute, we go backwards. It’s that simple.”
Quarterback issues haven’t helped the Bulldogs' cause. In addition to junior Jake Fromm turning pro, graduate transfer Jamie Newman opted out three weeks before the season opener. Meanwhile, injuries and inexperience impacted the progress made by sophomores JT Daniels and D’Wan Mathis.
Georgia turned to former walkon Stetson Bennett in the second quarter of the opener at Arkansas and things have run smoother since. Saban, for one, has been impressed.
“Offensively, they’ve been able to control the ball,” he said. “They’ve been one of the leading teams in the country in time of possession (34:35 pg). They do a good job of running it, show really good balance. … The quarterback has been very efficient for them.”
In other words, decent. But not be confused with the meteor shower the Tide has displayed weekly.
Running back Najee Harris already has scored 10 touchdowns after adding five in one game this past Saturday. He’s playing behind a veteran offensive line that will be by far the biggest Georgia’s defense has faced.
But the real energy from the Tide’s offense comes from the passing game. Led by quarterback Mac Jones, they’re averaging 385 yards a game through the air. Nobody has been able to cover receivers Jaylen Waddle (132 ypg, 3 TDs) and DeVonta Smith (105-2).
“What’s made them succeed is players,” Smart said of Bama’s offense. “They’ve got really good players. ‘Sark’ (offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian) does a great job of implementing a system that the kids can execute. It’s based on really hard guys to cover outside. … Alabama capitalizes on a great system with a really good scheme and really good players.”
The beauty of Saturday’s matchup is Georgia has some really good players on defense, too. The Bulldogs' defenders are as motivated by Saturday’s X-and-O challenge as what it means to their goals and pursuits of the season.
“This is a great, deep, deep unit that we have this year,” said junior cornerback Eric Stokes, who has two of the Bulldogs' five interceptions on the season. “Throughout all my years, I really love this group. … It’s just tremendous because of all the guys that are buying in. It’s just a different feeling.”
Said noseguard Jordan Davis of his first trip to Alabama: “It’s just an amazing challenge. I’m ready to go in there. I can’t say I have more motivation. We take every game as a business trip. We’re just focusing on us and hopefully we’ll go to Alabama and do our thing.”