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Brant Sanderlin/AJC
UGA barely slipped by with a 26-24 win vs. Nicholls State in 2016.

By the Numbers: UGA has improved mightily since 2016 nailbiter with FCS foe

Brandon Adams

Georgia football fans can get their statistical fix each week with By the Numbers — a stats-based look at how UGA coach Kirby Smart is doing in his attempt to keep the Bulldogs on top of the SEC and continue the program’s pursuit of a national championship. This week’s edition of By the Numbers looks at how Georgia got all it wanted from Nicholls State in 2016 and explains why that isn’t likely to happen again vs. Austin Peay Saturday.

It’s almost staggering to consider: the mighty Georgia Bulldogs — one of the most storied programs in college football — played a game down to the wire with Nicholls State, a team from the lowly FCS. Yet it happened, and not in some bygone era when people were still using VCRs. This was the HD DVR era — in fact, it happened with Kirby Smart patrolling the sidelines.

One could be forgiven for forgetting all about this ugly display from 2016 — a 26-24 UGA win vs. the Colonels from the Southland Conference (The who? From the where?). It’s just so foreign to recall now given the success the Bulldogs achieved last season.

It’s probably not too surprising Smart wasn’t in much of a reminiscing mood when the subject of the Nicholls State game came up with reporters this week.

“We don’t get into teaching tools from other games. I think sometimes you do that, as a coach, you get into negativity,” Smart said when asked if he used that close call from his first season as a reminder for his team to stay focused on Austin Peay.

Smart might not be interested in looking back, but recalling what happened for UGA in an ugly effort two years ago speaks to the strides forward the program has taken since then.

Simply put, Georgia was in position to potentially lose to Nicholls State because it couldn’t generate much offense — a problem that plagued UGA a lot in 2016, but was mostly corrected by 2017.

Bulldogs quarterback Jacob Eason was just 11/20 for 204 yards vs. the Colonels. That 55 percent completion percentage is almost exactly the same as his season average (55.1 percent). Eason’s low completion rate was an anchor dragging behind the team against Nicholls State and for much of the rest of the season. The Bulldogs were just 91st in the country in passing efficiency in 2016 according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ formula.

Contrast that with 2017 when UGA leapt up to sixth in the nation in passing efficiency.

Why the dramatic change? UGA’s new quarterback Jake Fromm was more accurate than his predecessor. In particular, Fromm was more accurate on the downs that matter most.

Connelly specifically tracks “passing success rate” — which is a determination of how well an offense collects needed yards. For instance, a passing play on third down would need to convert for a touchdown or a first down to be considered successful. UGA posted a passing success rate of 43.8 percent in 2017, up from 36.5 percent in 2016.

Traditional stats tell a similar story. UGA converted 45.64 percent of its third downs last season (second-best mark in the SEC, 11th nationally). Conversely, the Bulldogs were just 54th nationally in third down conversion in 2016 (41.75 percent) and went three and out three times vs. Nicholls State.

That said, the blame for UGA’s offensive struggles in 2016 doesn’t rest with the quarterback alone.

UGA rushed for just 167 yards in the near-debacle vs. Nicholls State (14 yards less than Sony Michel would rush for by himself a year later in the Rose Bowl). Furthermore, 19 of UGA’s 39 running plays produced three or fewer yards. Amazingly, 12 of those carries were for one yard or less — an anemic performance emblematic of much the rest of the season, a year in which UGA barely resembled the juggernaut that would emerge the following year.

Georgia ran for 3,876 yards in 2017 — 1,390 yards more than in 2016. How did this dramatic improvement occur given that the two leading rushers — Michel and Nick Chubb — remained the same?

There are a few reasons. First of all, Chubb — who posted 1,130 yards in 2016 was likely not his best coming off a devastating knee injury the year before. Chubb ran for 1,345 yards last year. He and Michel were also joined by D’Andre Swift (the nation’s No. 4 running back from the 2017 recruiting class) who provided 618 yards as a freshman.

However, a healthier Chubb and Swift’s impressive debut season aren’t the only reasons why UGA’s running game improved.

Advanced stats proponents like Connelly track so-called “adjusted line yards,” which attempt to quantify how running backs are helped by their offensive line. In 2016, UGA was 101st in the country in adjusted line yards, and 12th nationally in that metric last season. The upgrade was likely fueled — at least in part — by the addition of two former elite recruits into the starting lineup. Ben Cleveland, the nation’s No. 90 recruit in the 2016 class, became the right guard by the end of last season, and Andrew Thomas, the nation’s No. 45 recruit in 2017, was the right tackle.

Linemen like Cleveland and Thomas opened a lot of holes and set a tone for the Bulldogs that made the possibility of upsets like the one that nearly occurred vs. Nicholls State seem remote at best.

“We tell our guys all the time we play to a standard,” Smart said this week. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Florida, Austin Peay, South Carolina. We play to a standard. Our standard is to go out and dominate the opponent physically, mentally wear them down. That’s what we try to do.”

In 2016, Smart’s team wasn’t capable of achieving that standard. However, in 2017 the Bulldogs used more accuracy from the quarterback and a better offensive line to create an explosive offense that paired nicely with the Bulldogs ferocious defense, and “domination” was truly the end result.

Expect more of the same from UGA Saturday.