ATHENS – For nine weeks, Georgia rode its defense and rode it far. It was among the best defenses in the nation, setting up an argument to be the best.
Then came Auburn. So the central question, concerning Georgia’s remaining championship aspirations, was put to safety J.R. Reed: Did this defense get exposed, or was it just a bad night?
“We still think that we’re the best. We still believe that we’re the best,” Reed said. “They had a good game. (We) played a good team, they got us, they had our number that game. It’s all about bouncing back and showing everybody that we’re still the best.”
Georgia lost by 23 points Saturday night, which nobody in the BCS and playoff era has done and gone on to win the whole thing. It’s also unusual for a Kirby Smart defense.
In the Nick Saban era at Alabama, with Smart as the defensive coordinator from 2007-15, the Crimson Tide never lost a game by more than 14 points. Even Saban’s first year at Alabama, when they went 6-7, the Tide never lost by more than a touchdown.
That doesn’t completely fall on the defense, obviously. Some of those points came after being handed a short field. But Georgia’s defense gave up 488 yards, not only a season high, but the second-most in Smart’s two years at Georgia. (Last year, Ole Miss had 510 yards.)
“After you lose, it’s like failing a test,” Reed said. “You want to see what you did wrong. You pay a little bit more attention, you do a little bit more film, you do a little bit extra to get over that hump.”
Georgia still ranks second in the SEC in total defense, as measured by yards allowed per game (277.5) and is third in yards given up per play (4.53). Auburn is third and second in those categories, respectively, and Alabama is first in both.
What about the competition? Georgia has faced five teams ranked in the top 50 nationally in total offensive yards: Missouri (10), Notre Dame (22), Auburn (24), Appalachian State (49) and Mississippi State (50). But UGA has also faced four teams in the bottom 25 nationally: South Carolina (107), Florida (114), Vanderbilt (118) and Tennessee (125).
Looking ahead, Georgia’s opponents get progressively harder: Kentucky is only ranked 100th, while Georgia Tech is 51st, and then, it’s either Alabama (19th) or Auburn (24th).
There never has been much question about the talent on Georgia’s defense, especially the front seven. The pass rush and one-on-one pass coverage was a question, although not an outright concern when the defense was generally shutting things down.
Then everything broke down at Auburn, including the vaunted run defense.
“They played a good game. They’re a great team. They beat us fair and square,” Reed said. “We’ve just got to go back and make the corrections. We made a lot of mistakes out there.”
Smart said he had been worried about the tackling well before the Auburn game. He cited the defense losing a lot of one-on-one match-ups. There were also concerns about the play of the defensive line, according to Smart.
“We can play better. We have to strike and get off blocks, but every player on our team can do that,” Smart said. “It’s easy to look at a lot of the things that reared their head in the last game, they were in the game before and the game before that. You may not have noticed them because the results weren’t the same.”
Now the results may have given Georgia’s defense a wake-up call, or a reality check, or any of the terms being thrown around this week.
“The demeanor this week has been physical, Wildcat, toughness, strike people, get off blocks,” Smart said. “But that’s not a change in demeanor from previous weeks. We’ve just got to do it at a higher level.”