No. 1 Georgia’s offense deserves some credit, too

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers (19) makes a 4-yard touchdown reception past fallen Charleston Southern defensive back Kamron Smith during the first quarter at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Athens, Georgia. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Georgia tight end Brock Bowers (19) makes a 4-yard touchdown reception past fallen Charleston Southern defensive back Kamron Smith during the first quarter at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Athens, Georgia. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

ATHENS – Georgia’s defense gets the lion’s share of credit for the team’s success this season, and for good reason. Its performance thus far has been historic. But the Bulldogs sport a pretty decent offense, too, and the combination therein is why they’re nation’s No. 1-ranked team.

Entering Saturday’s game at Georgia Tech (noon, ABC), the Bulldogs (11-0) rank seventh in the nation in scoring (40.3 ppg). That’s second only to Alabama (44.4) in the SEC.

What separates Georgia, however, is its combination of a high-octane offense with a stiff-necked defense.

“I think complementary football is really important,” Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said last week. “They play off each other.”

Indeed they do, and statistics back it up. Specifically, the “net yards per play” stat.

It is well-documented that the Bulldogs lead the nation in scoring defense, or points allowed, at 7.5 per game. They’re also No. 2 against the run (77.2 ypg), No. 3 against the pass (157.8 ypg) and No. 2 in total defense (235.0 ypg).

Broken down further, Georgia is allowing an average of only 3.7 yards per play to opposing offenses. That’s No. 1 in the SEC by a lot.

On offense, the Bulldogs are averaging a very productive 6.9 yards per play. For perspective, that’s tied with Alabama and Florida as tops in the SEC.

But it’s when those two measures are quantified together that a truly dominant picture emerges. The yards per play on defense subtracted from yards per play on offense results in a team’s net yards per play, or “Net YPP.” The higher that number, the better.

Georgia’s is plus-3.2. Second, third and fourth in the SEC is Alabama (plus-2.1), Texas A&M (plus-1.5) and Florida (plus-1.4).

It’s probably not coincidental, then, that the top four teams in the latest College Football Playoff rankings also are the top four teams in the nation in net yards per play: Georgia (3.2), Ohio State (3.0), Cincinnati (2.5) and Alabama (2.1).

Those are the teams playing the best complementary football.

“I certainly think we’ve been fortunate to do that,” Smart said.

Fortunate, yes. Resilient, too.

Almost forgotten in the narrative of Georgia’s perfect season so far is that fact that the Bulldogs have had to overcome a multitude of injuries and absences on offense. Start with the fact that they’ve been playing with a backup quarterback most of the season.

While senior Stetson Bennett has established himself as Georgia’s No. 1 quarterback, junior JT Daniels opened the season with that distinction. Daniels returned from a lingering back injury in late October, but Bennett has started eight of the Bulldogs’ 11 games, including the past seven.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have been without star split end George Pickens, their top receiver, all season. Tight end Darnell Washington and slot receiver Dominick Blaylock also missed a combined 17 games between them. Heralded transfer tight end/receiver Arik Gilbert never played before leaving the team in preseason camp.

Meanwhile, Georgia has incurred multiple injuries on the offensive line. The latest issue arose when starting left tackle Jamaree Salyer went down in practice with a sprained tackle. The senior has missed the past three games.

The Bulldogs also lost starting right guard Tate Ratledge to a broken foot on the first offensive series of the season against Clemson. Warren Ericson, the starting center in preseason camp before breaking his hand, was inserted at Ratledge’s position and has started every game since.

“I’ve really been proud of what those guys have done in terms of all the injuries we’ve had,” Smart said. “We’ve just had had a countless number of guys in and out, in and out, and a revolving door at receiver. You know, tight ends have probably been our most consistent position, but even Darnell was a lot faster before the injury. He has had to really work himself back into shape. So, overall, I’m pleased with what those guys have been able to do.”

The unexpected bonus from all the injuries on offense has been the quality depth that has resulted. Freshman receivers Ladd McConkey and Adonai Mitchell have proved to be budding stars. And freshman All-American honors are certainly in the offing for tight end Brock Bowers, who leads the team in receiving, with 34 catches for 552 yards and eight touchdowns.

It might get even better soon. Salyer practice this week and could possibly return to his post at left tackle against Tech. But, if he doesn’t, the Bulldogs like what they’ve seen from his replacement. Redshirt freshman Broderick Jones, a 5-star prospect out of Lithonia, has been solid if imperfect.

Meanwhile, eight months after suffering a torn ACL in practice, there are indications that Pickens could play again this season. He remained in a non-contact jersey this week, but he’s no longer working with the scout team. He’s now practicing with the No. 2 and 3 offensive units.

“We’re trying to kind of integrate him back into getting calls and doing assignments,” Smart said.

Pickens has not been cleared to play, however. Smart wasn’t sure when he would be.

With or without him, though, Smart thinks Georgia can get better on offense.

“I just want to see improvement,” he said after the Bulldogs’ practice Tuesday night. “You know, (with) Stetson, we’re getting targets each week, (but) decision-making, quick decisions, not holding the ball (needs to improve). … We got to have 11 guys on the same page.”

Perhaps that will happen this week. If not, the SEC Championship game against Alabama would be ideal.