ATHENS -- Georgia has a dilemma heading into Kentucky for Saturday’s game. Conventional wisdom says the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs are a decidedly superior team. Therefore, they should approach the game conservatively.
That is, run the football, play defense, don’t turn the ball over, win the game.
And Georgia probably could do that.
But then there’s the bigger picture. For the Bulldogs, the goal remains to win at the highest level, to compete for championships, to secure the school’s first national title in four decades. And the formula for doing that has changed.
The last national champion to average fewer that 40 points a game on offense was Alabama when it beat Georgia for the title in 2017. Since then, LSU averaged 48.4 last season and Clemson 44.3 the one before that.
Last season, the four national semifinalists in the College Football Playoff all averaged 43.9 points or more. Right now, the nation’s two top-ranked teams also rank No. 1 and No. 2 two in scoring average for FBS teams that have played more than one game (No. 2 Alabama 48.4, No. 1 Clemson 48.2). Ohio State has played once, but scored 52 points in that one.
Ultimately, that’s what the football world wants. Whether it’s the NFL or college, the powers that be, and many fans, want to see points scored.
“Nobody wants a 9-6 game," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "They don’t enjoy that. I think it’s a great thing. I think it’s physical toughness, I think it’s a rock 'em-sock 'em, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think it could be a great game and be 9-6, but nobody’s entertained by that. So the world we live in today is entertained by points.”
The rules have been skewed to facilitate that cause. Offensive linemen can grab jerseys and can move as far as three yards down the field (and often more) on a pass play. Holding and pass-interference calls highly favor the offensive players.
For evidence, see Georgia’s last outing against No. 2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Bulldogs hung for a long while and even led at halftime 24-20. Alas, they couldn’t keep pace. Georgia was hit three times for explosive plays, turned the ball over twice and left 41-24 losers.
“Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Georgia has as good a defense as we do an offense, and we scored 41 points on. That’s not the way it used to be. It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren’t going to score. You were always going to be in the game.
"I’m telling you, it ain’t that way anymore.”
Where has Georgia been during this transition? Twentieth, 14th, 49th and 41st, respectively, in scoring these past four seasons.
That’s why Smart cut loose James Coley and hired Todd Monken as offensive coordinator after last season. But, in Georgia’s defense, it was probably the worst year possible to make such a transition.
Georgia lost nine starters and 17 lettermen overall from the offense. That included four offensive linemen, quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D’Andre Swift.
The outlook remained bright after the Bulldogs welcomed graduate transfer Jamie Newman from Wake Forest in January. But when Newman opted out three and a half weeks before the season opener, Georgia suffered another setback.
The Bulldogs have made do the best they could since then. Former walk-on Stetson Bennett emerged as the starting quarterback and held his own through the first three weeks of the season. But his limitations and those of Georgia’s latest offense were exposed in the loss to Alabama.
Which brings us back to Kentucky. If there’s a team that has had more problems on offense than Georgia, it’s the Wildcats. They come into Saturday’s game averaging only 24 points a game and fresh off a 20-10 loss to Missouri. Meanwhile, they’ll be breaking in a new quarterback.
Sophomore Joey Gatewood, a transfer from Auburn, will be getting the ball after senior Terry Wilson was sidelined this week with a wrist injury. Gatewood may ultimately be the shot in the arm Kentucky’s offense needs, but it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats suddenly turning prolific against Georgia’s defense. Despite allowing three explosives and 564 yards against Alabama, the Bulldogs remain one of the better defensive units in college football.
The Wildcats aren’t too bad either. Kentucky also has faced some offensive juggernauts in Ole Miss and Mississippi State, yet comes in Saturday ranked 20th and 31st in scoring defense (20.0 ppg) and total defense (357.2 ypg). That’s comparable with Georgia’s rankings of 19th and 20th (19.5, 318.5). respectively.
Playing tough and physical on defense has been a hallmark of the Wildcats under coach Mark Stoops, like Smart a defensive coordinator by trade. So it’s not like Georgia can expect easy sledding Saturday.
But the championship blueprint, such as it has become, shows that teams need to score and score often. Sooner or later, the Bulldogs have to prove they can win a “boat race,” as Smart calls them. Whether that will be needed this week against Kentucky, odds or it will be sooner or later. Maybe next week against Florida or, if the Bulldogs' ultimate goal is achieved, in a rematch with Alabama.
“I think it’s very important,” Georgia senior tight end Tre' McKitty said. “You always want to be explosive on offense. That’s the key to winning the game. We want to attack with our run game, make sure we can do that, then take shots over the top.”
Monken defines “explosive plays” as any run of 12 or more yards and any pass of 16 or more. The Bulldogs have been fair to pedestrian on that front so far. They’ve averaged nine explosives per game to date, with a high of 11 against Tennessee and a low of eight against Auburn and Alabama. So at least they’ve been consistent.
Oddly enough, the area in which Georgia has been most lacking has been the run game. The program that likes to call itself “RBU” has only two runs of more than 20 yards by its backs all season. The longest run from scrimmage (43 yards) was logged by flanker Jeremy Burton.
Conversely, the Bulldogs' most explosive pass play so far was recorded by a back. James Cook went 82 yards for a touchdown on a wheel route against the Crimson Tide. In all, Georgia has logged 36 “explosives,” 11 by ground and 25 through the air.
Georgia would like to get vertical more often the conventional way, via deep pass routes. That has proved difficult with Bennett at the controls. Smart is sticking with the 5-foot-11 signal-caller for now, but expect the Bulldogs to either go back to 6-6 redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis or give sophomore transfer JT Daniels a shot if such plays don’t soon materialize.
Meanwhile, Georgia is expected to give freshman running back Kendall Milton more work in the coming weeks. The 6-1, 220-pound freshman has the longest run from scrimmage for the running backs so far (24 yards).
The bottom line is the Bulldogs know they have to be better. They can be all-world on defense and intend to be. But they have to figure out how to score more.
So does Georgia try to force-feed an explosive passing game on Kentucky and try to get better in that aspect of the game, or just do what it has to do to win the game?
“It’s not easy to say this or that,” Smart said. “There’s a lot of factors that go into it, but scoring offense and being able to score points is a tremendous factor. … You better be able to score yourself.”