Towers’ Take: Bulldogs struggling to find an offensive identity

Georgia has spent less time with the quarterback under center in a traditional I-formation with Jacob Eason at quarterback.

ATHENS — Alabama, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Auburn and Missouri are all averaging 35 points or better a game, with the Crimson Tide leading the way at 43.9 a game. The same five teams also lead the SEC in total offense.

What do these five teams have in common? They all run some semblance of the up-tempo, spread offense. That’s right, Alabama, too.

Georgia, which fancies itself a “pro-style offense,” is currently 12th in the conference in scoring (25.1 ppg) and ninth in total offense (402.9 ypg).

That’s not to say that the Bulldogs should abandon their identity as a pro-style team. They certainly have attracted many a great quarterback and tailback to come play football here. And, as all know who have followed this game closely, it’s “Jimmys and Joes” not “X’s and O’s” who determine success or failure. Georgia’s “Jimmys” up front are getting whipped by opponents’ “Joes.”

But Bama might be considered Exhibit A in an argument for why every team should convert to a spread-based, no-huddle attack. The Tide has gradually leaned that way since Lane Kiffin came aboard as offensive coordinator in 2014. And this season, they’re all in.

Bama was well-suited for a change at the time of Kiffin’s arrival, with the mobile Blake Sims set to take over the role of starting quarterback. Alabama shot up in the offensive ranks, averaging 36.9 points a game on the way to a 12-2 season in 2014. Last year, under quarterback Jake Coker, the defensive-minded Tide averaged 35.1 points on the way to the national championship.

Alabama is still playing stout defense, allowing only 14.9 points per game. But it’s high-scoring offense has made that less of a priority. The margin of victory for the No. 1-ranked Tide this season is a gaudy 29 points per game.

The fact is, the modern-day rules of football favor this strategy. Referees are now instructed to get the ball in play as quickly as possible, holding up the snap only if the offense has substituted players (so the defense can be allowed to match). If they don’t sub, offenses can run off plays as fast as they can get set, which can be less than 10 seconds sometimes. Hence, Missouri, Auburn, Alabama and A&M have all run 538 or more plays. Bama has run 587, while Mizzou is averaging an SEC high 80 a game.

Meanwhile, the run-pass blocking rules have been relaxed to allow lineman to come off the line of scrimmage as many as three yards on a pass play and they have unlimited range laterally. That has given the offense an added layer of mystery as to whether a given play is a run or a pass. They all look the same to linebackers and defensive backs, who have to make the critical run-or-pass judgment in a split-second.

Hence, that has given way to the newest form of offensive ingenuity, the run-pass option, or “RPOs.” On such plays, neither the quarterback, backs or receivers know whether it’s a pass or a run. It’s based on the quarterback’s read, which is based on what the defense gives it.

Add the element of a mobile quarterback that can run, and you’ve got yourself a quadruple-threat on every play.

Obviously, Georgia knows this as well as anybody. As defensive coordinator at Alabama the last eight years, Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart was tasked with trying to contain such offenses. And they often gave him fits, particularly the ones he faced annually from Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Auburn, and in last year’s national championship game from Clemson.

The fact is, the Bulldogs have some spread concepts and RPO packages in their offensive repertoire under Jim Chaney. A lot of what they’re doing with flanker Isaiah McKenzie on jet sweeps and Terry Godwin in the “Wild Dawg” formation is born out of the spread concept. And the Bulldogs can go pretty fast when they want to or when they’ve had to. They’ve run 524 plays so far, sixth among SEC teams.

Asked what he wanted his offense to be known for Monday, Smart said: “I think the word I’ve used is balance.”

“I think people might mistake that for I (formation), but we really haven’t been in the I much this year,”  Smart continued. “I think we’ve been (a) motion-shift team. We have been diversified in our personnel groupings because we have some personnel groupings that make us better week to week.”

What Georgia does on offense is particularly crucial this week as it gets set to do battle with one of the SEC’s best defenses this week in Jacksonville. Statistically, Florida is even more formidable than Alabama. The Gators lead the SEC in scoring defense (12.0 ppg), total defense (252.5 ypg) and pass defense (132.8 ypg, 10 interceptions).

In the meantime, Georgia has been fairly erratic when it comes to its offensive identity. The Bulldogs have rushed for more yards than it passed in three of the seven games it has played. They’re 2-2 in the four games they’ve passed for more yards, scoring one of those victories on a last-minute TD pass against Missouri.

The closest Georgia has come to achieving true balance was in what would be considered one of its best overall games. It had 181 yards and two TDs rushing and 211 yards and two TDs passing in a loss against then-No. 11 Tennessee.

Georgia’s offense has seemed to move the best when it allowed Eason to line up in the shotgun and turn loose on designated targets. The danger in that against Florida is it features two projected NFL first-round picks in cornerbacks Jalen Taylor and Quincy Wilson, not mention an All-American in safety Marcus Maye. In their last game, the Gators gave up 265 yards rushing to Missouri, but then also got “pick-sixes” from both Taylor and Wilson in what ended as a 40-14 romp.

Ultimately, Georgia will try to achieve balance.

“It’s not necessarily whether you’re spread or not,” Smart said. “We think there are some advantages to those looks based on who you play. We’ve been in the RPO world this year and done more of those than probably people even know we’ve done. … It’s becoming more of what we do, but it’s not going to be our sole identity. You gotta be able to run the ball out of both looks.”

Making it all the more of a predicament is playing with a freshman quarterback. Jacob Eason (6-6, 242 pounds) is a prototypical pro-style quarterback in physical stature but came to Georgia from a shotgun-based, pass-oriented spread in Lake Stevens, Wash. He doesn’t have the mobility to pose much of a running threat.

Which way the Bulldogs decide to tilt on this in the future will be intriguing to follow. They currently have a commitment from a quarterback in Jake Fromm who runs a spread offense at Houston County High School and is relatively mobile.

Smart indicated they’re going to keep their options open.

“You’ve got to be diversified,” Smart said. “Pretty much every team we’ve played, they’ve had two personnel groupings (on offense). They’ve got ‘this group’ and they’ve got ‘this group,’ and they do whichever one they think works best.”

Right now, neither one is working particularly well for Georgia. The Bulldogs will need to be more decisive on that front against the Gators.

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