Even if Georgia’s defense finally slips, no opponent can take advantage

Georgia football-Jamon Dumas Johnson-defense-family

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia Bulldogs co-defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann, right, talks with linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson (10) during their NCAA football game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Kroger Field, Saturday, November 19, 2022, in Lexington, Kentucky. Georgia won 16-6. Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

ATHENS—Mississippi State’s Will Rogers is a good quarterback who had a bad day against Georgia last season. It happens. It’s not hard to explain why.

“Jalen Carter is pretty good,” Rogers said at SEC media days last month. “I mean, everybody on their defense is a five-star or plays for the Eagles. So, they’re pretty good.”

Rogers was exaggerating only a little bit. Ex-Bulldogs Carter, Nolan Smith and Kelee Ringo are with the Eagles now. Two other Georgia defenders also were selected in the last NFL draft: Christopher Smith (Raiders) and Robert Beal (49ers). All five of those players are expected to earn major roles as NFL rookies.

Once again, the Bulldogs will need to replace a lot of NFL-level talent to remain an elite defense. They’ve always done it. Everyone assumes they’ll do it again. It’s not a given.

“The thing about a standard is, once you set it, you have to uphold it every single day,” Bulldogs co-defensive coordinator Glenn Schumann said Tuesday. “So, when we go out to practice today we are not worried about the results that are going to come when we play our opponents this fall. We are worried about, ‘How can we uphold the standard today?”

Kirby Smart’s team has been doing it for four years in a row. Great players leave, new ones are plugged in, and the Bulldogs keep playing great defense.

NFL teams selected five ex-Bulldogs defenders in the 2021 draft, including four within the first 92 picks. It didn’t matter. Georgia’s defense improved from 17th in points allowed in 2020 to first in 2021.

Eight former UGA defenders were picked in the 2022 draft. Five went in the first round, including No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker. The Bulldogs still had the No. 1 scoring defense again in 2022.

The unit slipped a bit last season in Bill Connelly’s SP+ efficiency rankings (adjusted for situation, tempo and opponent). Georgia’s defense finished third in 2022 after it was No. 1 for three straight years. Connelly’s system predicts Georgia’s defense will rank third again in 2023. The inputs for the formula include returning production and recent recruiting, with the impact of transfers considered, plus recent history.

Maybe this will be the year that the attrition finally catches up to Georgia’s defense. The group’s one weakness last year was big pass plays allowed, and two of the best defensive backs now play in the NFL. Carter’s dominance in the middle of the line will be missed. The expectation is that the Bulldogs will keep rolling with former blue-chip recruits playing bigger roles but, again, that’s not a given.

Said Schumann: “Schemes change from year-to-year based on who your best 11, 15 players are. We are going to measure did we ‘out-hit’ people? Did we ‘out-hustle’ people? Did we ‘out-compete’ people. If we do that, you are successful playing defense.”

We’ll see if Georgia’s defense can remain elite after 19 players were drafted over the last three years. The Bulldogs probably can afford a bit of regression. For four straight years only those opponents with top NFL prospects at quarterback and wide receiver have had any hope of scoring many points against Georgia (Florida in 2020 is the only exception). There’s no opponent on the 2023 schedule that fits that description.

Three of Georgia’s SEC East foes had quarterbacks drafted by NFL teams in April: Florida (Anthony Richardson), Kentucky (Will Levis) and Tennessee (Hendon Hooker). Florida will replace Richardson with either a transfer who wasn’t good at Wisconsin (Graham Mertz) or a guy who’s started one game over three college seasons (Jack Miller). Kentucky is going with former N.C. State starter Devin Leary, who isn’t a dual-threat like Levis. Tennessee is trying Joe Milton again after he struggled in 2021 and lost his spot to Hooker.

The SEC’s best quarterback is in the West and, for a change, not at Alabama. LSU’s Jaylen Daniels was voted preseason first-team All-SEC. He played on a bad ankle against Georgia in last year’s league title game. Maybe he’ll be better should LSU and Georgia meet again. But by then the Bulldogs will have had plenty of time to work out any issues against opponents that aren’t good enough to make them sweat.

Georgia has allowed more than 22 points just three times over the past two seasons. Alabama scored 34 in the 2021 SEC championship game. The Bulldogs proved that was a fluke by shutting down Bama in the national title game the next month. LSU scored 13 garbage-time points to reach 30 in last year’s SEC title game. Ohio State had the Bulldogs reeling in the Peach Bowl, but that required quarterback C.J. Stroud to play the game of his life.

It still wasn’t enough. Georgia held the Buckeyes to two field goals over the final 28 minutes, then TCU’s high-powered offense fizzled against Georgia in the national title game. It’s typical for great offenses to have their worst days against Georgia. The same thing happened to TCU that’s happened to Bama in the 2021 national championship game, to Tennessee the past two seasons and to LSU in last year’s SEC title game.

Georgia’s four-year run of great defense is the best since Alabama from 2008-20. Nick Saban’s teams never ranked below seventh in defensive SP+ during that time. They were No. 1 in seven of those 13 years. The Crimson Tide’s defense has slipped lately. It was ninth in defensive SP+ in 2021 and 11th in 2022.

Smart was Saban’s defensive coordinator from 2008 to 2015. His team has supplanted Alabama at the top of college football because the Bulldogs play defense the way Saban’s teams used to. The difference is the Bulldogs have done it during an era when wide-open, explosive offense has become the norm in college football.

Georgia’s defense has stayed great even as future NFL starters depart. That might change one day. If it happened to Saban, it could happen to Smart. But even if the Bulldogs aren’t as dominant defensively this season, they won’t face an opponent that can make them pay until the postseason.