The ultimate test of Bulldogs defense begins Saturday

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

A new season begins for Georgia on Saturday, a season that surely figures to be more challenging than the 12 games on the magnetic 2021 schedule still stuck to the fridge. Someone out there must be capable of making the Bulldogs nervous for four full quarters, right?

Presently, Georgia is a 6.5-point favorite over Alabama for Saturday’s SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (4 p.m., CBS). It seems a wide margin for an opponent that has won the past six meetings and has a bandolier full of national titles. But it’s a sliver compared with the margin of victory the Bulldogs have run up in their eight regular-season conference games (31.9).

Working on the supposition that whatever coming opposition Georgia faces in the next month will be of higher rank and risk, then consider this a fresh chance – the real, true chance – for the Bulldogs’ defense to place itself in all-time territory.

“Before the season started, we talked about what our defense could do to be one of the best ever,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said this week. “We’ve done that thus far. Putting everything we’ve worked toward on display (against Alabama) – we’re blessed to have the opportunity to do it.”

This Bama offense is not as slick as other recent versions. Its backfield has been gutted by injuries. Apparently not even Nick Saban’s pantry contains an unlimited number of NFL runners in training. Leading rusher Brian Robinson suffered a dreaded lower-body muscle injury in Saturday’s escape at Auburn, his availability in question. Behind him is only one other healthy scholarship back, Trey Sanders, who gained but 23 yards on 10 carries versus the Tigers.

The deciding matchup of this game may well be Georgia’s fearsome defensive front seven against an Alabama offensive line that has sprung a stunning number of leaks for a dynasty built on owning the line of scrimmage. See the seven sacks given up to Auburn, the most in more than a decade for Bama. And the 35 sacks this season, most since 2005. The imposition of will is not so much a part of the Crimson Tide game plan this season.

On one hand, you have Georgia lineman Travon Walker sounding as confident as any player can from beneath the muffling blanket Kirby Smart throws over his team come interview time: “It’s going to be a great match-up on both sides. We have to continue doing what we’ve been doing all season, and everything will go as planned. We got to keep rushing the passer, and it will all fall in place.

“They have been struggling; everybody can see that. ... It’s going to be a fun night for the edge rushers.”

On the other, you have Saban still trying to coach up his O-line in December, which is not a great omen for his side: “I think we’ve got to play more physical. I think we’ve got to be more aggressive in terms of how we come out of our hips, play with power, whatever it is. We’ve got to try to dictate when we’re in the run game and get moving.”

The real image-affirming opportunity comes Saturday in the form of Heisman Trophy-level quarterback Bryce Young. Along with favored targets Jameson Williams (105 receiving yards per game) and John Metchie (7.5 catches per game), Young provides a stern test for a defense that would be immortal.

Bottle up Young, and this defense’s reputation undergoes a real growth spurt.

“They’re really elite wideouts, but what puts them over the top is the distributor,” Smart said of the Bama offense. “(Young) is an incredible athlete, player, decision-maker. What he didn’t get enough credit for is when the play breaks down, his skill set to deliver the ball, make people miss.”

“He’s like a point guard,” Smart continue. “He’s like an elite point guard that can distribute the ball, and when he’s dribbling down the court, he’s got the ability to throw it over there, throw it over there, and then he can make you miss. He almost baits rushers.”

Point guards named Young have a way of taking over games in Atlanta, so, beware, Georgia.

The Bulldogs D leads the nation in total defense and has allowed a ridiculous eight points per game fewer than the next best scoring defense. All that is but filler now. This unit ultimately will be measured by what it does the next month.

“Every week is a stage for us to show how really good we are,” insisted Jordan Davis, Georgia’s full eclipse of a lineman. “The standard doesn’t change each week. Doesn’t matter if we’re playing Charleston Southern, Bama, Clemson, any of these guys. The standard is what we play to. We don’t play to anybody’s level; it doesn’t matter to us.”

Every day this season has been D Day for Georgia, so prominent has its defense been. Still, all else has been but prelude to this moment. Now is the time to reveal the absolute best version of itself. Even to improve, if such a thing is possible. “There’s never anything we can’t get better at,” linebacker Quay Walker suggested.

History is holding a place for this defense, should it be inclined to accept the invitation.