This is the second in a series of stories that compares units on the Georgia and Alabama teams as last season’s College Football Playoff finalists prepare for a rematch on Dec. 1 in the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
ATHENS — Kirby Smart didn’t hesitate when asked what area of his football team concerned him most after Georgia beat Florida 3 1/2 weeks ago: “Run defense.”
The Bulldogs’ front seven — and thus run defense — is the weakest link of the football team. That doesn’t bode well with a regular-season finale ahead against run-heavy Georgia Tech, and an SEC Championship Game matchup with explosive Alabama.
Smart said this week he likes the direction his defensive front is trending, but he’s the first to admit it’s an area that remains a work in progress.
“I think we have really worked on it, (and) I think when you try to emphasize something, you get what you demand a lot of times, so we’ve certainly worked really hard to shore up those areas through technique, fundamentals, going against a pretty good run team in our offense,” Smart said.
“We have gotten a couple guys back from injury. But at the end of the day, I don’t think you’ve ever arrived when it comes to any statistic.”
Georgia ranks a respectable 28th in the nation in run defense, allowing 131 yards per game and 4.08 yards per carry through 10 games. At first glance, that wouldn’t appear to be too far off last year’s defense which finished ranked 20th allowing 126 yards per game and 3.74 yards per carry.
But a closer look at the 2017 Bulldogs shows that through 10 games it was ranked No. 5 in the nation, allowing 103.8 yards per game on the ground before closing the season with Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Auburn, Oklahoma and Alabama.
Kirby Smart said before the season started he knew the Bulldogs didn’t have an inside linebacker the equal of departed SEC Defensive Player of the Year Roquan Smith.
Smith is now playing a starring role for the Chicago Bears while the Bulldogs have used what Smart calls a “committee” approach at the two inside linebacker positions.
Sophomore Monty Rice has been the most effective insider linebacker this season, leading the team with 59 tackles despite missing a game on account of a sprained knee that hampered him.
Another big problem — quite literally — is that Georgia has failed to adequately replace nose guard John Atkins (6-4, 305) and have missed defensive tackle Trenton Thompson (6-4, 295).
The Bulldogs’ run defense issues have particularly shown up in short yardage situations the second half of the season.
LSU was 7-of-9 converting in situations where 2 or less yards were needed — including four fourth-and-1 situations — and Florida was 5-of-6 under those circumstances.
The emergence and continued maturation of freshman defensive tackle Jordan Davis (6-6, 320) and the return of Devante Wyatt (6-3, 301) from injury has helped bolster the Bulldogs’ interior defensive line recently.
“We’ve been healthier, I mean there was some time in there where we didn’t have as many 300-pound guys healthy, and we’ve got a couple more guys now that helped build a wall for us,” Smart said. “Jordan (Davis) has been a big part of that.”
Georgia needs stepped up play from juniors Julian Rochester (6-5, 300) and Michael Barnett (6-4, 304) to help compensate for Tyler Clark (6-4, 300) being somewhat limited by an injured finger that has required his hand to be taped into a club.
Alabama’s run defense, meanwhile, has been a step above the Bulldogs.
The Crimson Tide is coming off back-to-back shutouts over teams ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history, and Alabama’s run defense has been at the heart of it, holding Mississippi State to 44 yards rushing on 30 attempts in last Saturday’s 24-0 win.
The Crimson Tide ranks seventh in the nation allowing 96.3 yards per game. Opponents have averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and scored three rushing touchdowns.
Georgia, by comparison, has allowed 10 rushing touchdowns.
The most glaring and difference between Alabama and Georgia’s run defense surfaces in the Red Zone.
The Crimson Tide ranks No. 3 in the nation in Red Zone defense, allowing 16 scores on opponents’ 25 Red Zone opportunities (.640).
The Bulldogs rank tied for 97th in the nation in Red Zone defense, allowing 21 scores on opponents’ 24 Red Zone opportunities (.875). Only Florida (104th), Missouri (108th) and Tennessee (114th) are worse in the SEC.
A comparison of how Alabama and Georgia fared against the run against common opponents:
vs. Alabama 25 attempts, 12 yards allowed (0.5 yards per carry)
vs. Georgia 51 attempts, 275 yards allowed (5.4 yards per carry)
vs. Alabama 30 attempts, 31 yards allowed (1.0 yards per carry)
vs. Georgia 25 attempts, 66 yards allowed (2.6 yards per carry)
vs. Alabama 35 attempts, 70 yards, (2.0 yards per carry)
vs. Georgia 37 attempts, 172 yards (4.6 yards per carry)