Of the six College Football Playoff championship games, only one has been won by a team scoring fewer than 35 points. The exception involved Alabama and Georgia on Jan. 8, 2018, a game that lasted beyond four quarters. Alabama won 26-23 in overtime.
Clemson has played for the national title four times in five years. It averaged 36 points over those four appearances. It won twice, lost twice.
Of the 12 CFP semifinals, the average winning score is 39.7 points, which rounds up to 40, which is a lot. Only three times has a semifinal winner scored fewer than 30 points. Twice that semifinal winner was Alabama, which brings us, at roundabout last, to the point (pun intended) of today’s exercise.
It’s a football truism, sitting on the same dusty shelf as good-pitching-stops-good-hitting: Defense wins championship. Last week Nick Saban, who’s so old-school he learned his sums on an abacus, told Chris Low of ESPN something we knew already but never expected to hear the Great Saban concede:
Defense no longer wins championships.
Said Saban: “It used to be that good defense beats good offense. Good defense doesn’t beat good offense anymore. It’s just like last week. Georgia has as good a defense as we do an offense, and we scored 41 points on them. 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.”
Then: “I’m telling you. It ain’t that way anymore.”
Apparently young Nicholas fared better in arithmetic than grammar, but never mind. This confession — coming as it does from the greatest advocate and administrator of defense since Gen. Neyland — bears a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus resonance.
Last year, Clemson finished with the nation’s sixth-best defense and fifth-best offense. It was a beautifully balanced team. LSU finished with the nation’s 31st-ranked defense and the best offense anyone has ever seen. A bit of an imbalance, eh? Final score from Jan. 13: LSU 42, Clemson 25.
Ten days ago, Georgia ranked first nationally in most defensive categories. Then it ran into Alabama. The Bulldogs yielded 41 points and 564 yards. It wasn’t as if they couldn’t score: They had 24 points and led at halftime. They gained 414 yards, six off their average. Trouble was, Bama slipped into a different gear over the final two quarters.
Credit: University of Alabama
Asked Monday via Zoom if offenses have indeed seized the moment, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said: “If you look at recent history, teams with elite offense have certainly done well in the playoffs – have really won most of the championships … whether it be Clemson or Alabama or LSU. I would argue that each one of those teams had pretty good defenses. So it’s not a clear-cut question; it’s not a clear-cut answer. It’s not easy to say this or that. There’s a lot of factors that go into it. But, being able to score points is a tremendous factor, and lot of the really good offenses have been ahead of the really good defenses. I don’t disagree with that.”
Then: “If you look across the board, there are some teams out there that have really dynamic offenses that don’t have defenses, and they struggle when they go play really good teams. You’re really looking to have both. I do respect that Clemson has won championships with good defenses, and Alabama, even when they beat us (for the national title), they had a dynamic offense and they had a good defense. When you go to LSU last year, nobody talks about their defense, but they obviously had a very good defense. They’ve got players playing all over the NFL.”
Thus did Georgia’s coach agree with his mentor’s central contention — you can’t win anything anymore without a big-time offense — while suggesting his Bulldogs haven’t fallen completely behind the times. You do still need to defend. There’s a reason Oklahoma hasn’t won a playoff game: It has yielded 199 points in its four semifinals. It can’t stop anybody who’s any good.
Question: Is Georgia’s latest offense, under the new tutelage of Todd Monken, vastly different than what we’ve seen? If you go by numbers, no. It ranks 41st nationally in total offense, an improvement over last season’s 61st. But the 2017 team, which lost the national title in overtime, ranked 32nd, and its successor, which fell just short of the playoff, ranked 18th. It’s possible these Bulldogs could win a December rematch with Alabama — Jaylen Waddle has been lost to injury — but it’s tough to imagine them finding the 42-or-so points such a victory could require.
If you listen, you’ll hear Bulldog Nation making the same plaint as in 2019: “We need a better quarterback!” The source of last year’s scorn was Jake Fromm, gone to the NFL after steering the Bulldogs to 36 wins over three seasons. Now it’s Stetson Bennett, the accidental QB. He threw three interceptions, two of them tipped, against Alabama. He’s listed at 5-foot-11, which might be generous.
Bennett arrived at Georgia as a walk-on. Then he transferred to a Mississippi JUCO. He transferred back believing he had a chance to start for the Bulldogs, a belief shared by no one else in this world. Then Jaime Newman, the Wake Forest transfer, opted out. D’wan Mathis fizzled in the first half at Arkansas. By now, most Georgia fans were expecting to see JT Daniels, the USC transfer. They haven’t yet.
Bennett ranks 12th among 12 qualifying SEC quarterbacks in completion percentage, eighth in quarterback rating and sixth in yards per pass. For a guy who wasn’t expected to take a competitive snap, he has been pretty good. That said, his team ranks 63rd nationally in passing efficiency. In 2018, Fromm’s sophomore season, Georgia ranked fourth.
Is Bennett a quarterback of national championship caliber? Not in this era. Will he finish the season as Georgia’s quarterback? That’s unknowable. Some fans are clamoring for the unseen Daniels, and Smart has hinted Mathis played better in Fayetteville than we non-coaches believe. Whispers hold that Georgia might spring a quarterback surprise against Florida on Nov. 7, that being the game that will decide the SEC East. (Then again, the last such sleight-of-hand involved Faton Bauta, about whom we say no more.)
Florida has a very good offense and a terrible defense. Georgia isn’t terrible at anything, but it’s great only when it doesn’t have the ball. The World’s Largest Outdoor Social Distancing party could put Smart’s you’ve-still-got-to-defend stance to the test. Forget what happens when a great offense and a great defense collide. Who prevails when a pedestrian offense meets third-and-Grantham?