ATHENS — For Georgia fans who don’t want to relive the Hail Mary that lost the Tennessee game, or the sack-fumble-touchdown that preceded it, then consider this: Neither would have mattered had Georgia’s defense, on Tennessee’s three earlier trips to the red zone, not reached the end zone each time.
That was how Vanderbilt pulled off the upset too: Three red zone trips, two touchdowns and a field goal. And then Georgia Tech: Three red zone trips, three touchdowns, including the game-winning one in the final minute.
So if you’re looking for a theme on Georgia’s defense this year, there it is.
“That’s the big talk of the spring,” said cornerback Deandre Baker, a rising junior.
But it’s not just on one side of the ball. The 20 yards beyond the end zone were calamitous for Georgia in general last year.
On defense, it was probably what kept a good unit from being great: Georgia ranked 114th nationally, and second-worst in the SEC, in red zone defense. It allowed opponents to score 90.7 percent of the time it got inside the 20, and to score touchdowns 74.4 percent of the time.
That was a major step backwards from 2015, when Georgia ranked third-best nationally in red zone defense. Opponents only scored 67.6 percent of the time inside the 20, and the touchdown rate was 50 percent.
“We work on that a little bit more, so we can perfect that, have a little better percentage next season,” Baker said.
On offense, Georgia’s red zone problem last year was just another problem area: The Bulldogs scored at least three points on 84.4 percent of trips there, which ranked 64th nationally. But it only managed a touchdown 55.6 percent of the time, which ranked 100th nationally.
Head coach Kirby Smart said there has been “more red area” work so far this spring.
“It’s pretty obvious we’ve got to improve on offense. We’ve got to score more points,” Smart said last week. “How do we do that? Well, we’ve got to convert in the red area. We were horrible there last year.”
The offensive problems are easier to diagnose, because they’re symptomatic of what went wrong in general. Problems with blocking, by the line and on the perimeter. Play-calling that was too predictable at times. A freshman quarterback slowed down the offense, stalling momentum when drives got closer to the end zone.
(Don’t blame place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. He did miss a 36-yard field goal at Ole Miss, but made his other 10 attempts from inside 40 yards.)
Smart is correct about the team being “horrible” in the red zone offensively. But it was only part of the problem: Georgia had 45 red-zone offensive trips last year, but that only ranked 79th nationally. The Bulldogs got touchdowns on 25 of those trips. If they had penetrated the end zone 10 more times, then the 35 touchdowns still only would have ranked 39th nationally. Good, but not great.
The defense, on the other hand, can almost single-handedly point at red zone problems. Georgia’s opponents only had 43 such trips, tied for 37th nationally, but the success rate (39 times getting at least a field goal, and 32 touchdowns) is startling.
Was the problem run defense? Perhaps. Georgia ranked 36th nationally overall in that stat. Good but not great. Was it not getting enough sacks to push opponents into lower-percentage downs? Yes, Georgia had only 29 sacks last year, ranking 46th.
But outside linebacker Davin Bellamy, a rising senior, didn’t get into much Xs-and-Os analysis when it came to the problem.
“When we get in the red zone, it’s all about attitude,” Bellamy said. “And we will be much better. We will be.”
G-Day is scheduled for April 22. Georgia’s spring game kicks off at 2 p.m. ET and will be televised on SEC Network.