Georgia football fans crave a national championship, and this season might be the year their wait comes to an end. However, the first step toward making that happen is for UGA coach Kirby Smart to lead the Bulldogs to a third-straight SEC East title. With that in mind, DawgNation is proud to present — in partnership with Georgia’s Own Credit Union — the “Own the East” series. A season preview content series focused on what it will take for UGA to dominate the division once again, and possibly return to the College Football Playoff.
Georgia wants to “do more” this season after coming close, but ultimately falling short of winning a national championship, over the last two years. During spring practice, Kirby Smart was clear about what he thought was the recipe for that improvement on defense.
“We want to increase our Havoc Rate on defense,” Smart said. “That’s one of the main target areas. We want to be more disruptive, and the only way you’re going to be more disruptive is practice being disruptive. So we’ve gotta do that. We’ve gotta create more lost yardage plays, more negative situations, and that’s something we’ve really worked on.”
“Havoc Rate” might sound like the name of an action-adventure movie from the 1990s, but it’s actually a stat invented by Bill Connelly (now an ESPN reporter) that measures “the percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up).”
It makes sense for UGA to focus on the metric given it’s an area in which the Bulldogs didn’t excel a season ago – UGA was 73rd in the country, producing so-called “havoc” plays on just 15.6 of its defensive snaps.
The top teams in the country typically perform much better.
Clemson – which beat Alabama in the national championship game last season – was third in the country in Havoc Rate. The Crimson Tide was second.
In fact, UGA (tied for 47th in 2017) is the only team in the last four years to play for the national championship without finishing in the top six nationally in Havoc Rate.
Therefore, it could be said the Bulldogs attempt to increase disruptive defensive plays could be one of the most important factors in the pursuit of success this season.
One analyst who apparently believes that is the SEC Network’s Greg McElroy. He recently offered a compelling challenge.
“The one thing I want to see is I want to see that Havoc Rate that Kirby Smart so often talks about,” McElroy said. “You can’t consider yourself an elite defensive unit and be 11th in the league in sacks. I want to see those numbers go up, and they have the personnel to do it.”
Unfortunately for UGA, McElroy gave it too much credit. The Bulldogs were actually 12th in the SEC in sacks last season with 24.
That – along with the other havoc elements – is a number that almost certainly has to improve this season for UGA to emerge as a legitimate national championship contender.
Yet how much improvement is realistically possible?
A few 2018 performances offer the Bulldogs some hope.
There were four teams in the top 10 of Havoc Rate last season who were 38th or worse in that metric the year before.
The two biggest climbers were Utah and Kentucky – which tied for ninth in Havoc Rate (producing havoc plays on 19.8 percent of their defensive snaps) after finishing 62nd and 91st respectively in that category the previous season.
Michigan State (tied for 47th in 2017 to fourth in 2018) and Texas A&M (38th to fifth) were the other major improvements.
Given the different variables that compose the havoc formula, it can be difficult to find commonalities among those teams.
For instance, Kentucky and Utah added to their sack totals considerably year over year. However, Michigan State and Texas A&M did not.
Yet one thing clearly stands out: All four teams drastically increased tackles for loss in 2018 compared to the season before.
In fact, the quartet averaged 24.75 more TFLs– including Utah, which recorded 109, a 60 percent increase from its 65 in 2017.
The Utes were led by senior linebacker Chase Hansen – who went from 2.5 TFLs in 2017 to 22 last season.
Likewise, Kentucky was paced by the increased productivity of linebacker Josh Allen – who more than doubled his TFLs (21.5) compared to the 10.5 he earned in 2017.
By comparison, that leaves UGA with some work to do.
D’Andre Walker – the Bulldogs leader with 11 TFLs in 2018, and the only player other than Roquan Smith to record a double-digit TFL season for UGA over the last two years – has departed for the NFL.
However, while UGA might’ve been short on individual dominance, it’s long on depth.
UGA returns 20 players who recorded a TFL last season. Nine of those players were freshmen. Two more – defensive lineman David Marshall and linebacker Monty Rice – missed key games due to injuries.
Obviously, UGA would love to have someone from this group explode this season the way Hansen and Allen did last year, but that kind of outsized growth probably isn’t necessary.
If even a fraction of UGA’s returning players — some of which who are now more experienced, and a couple of which who might be healthier — find a way to add even a single TFL to their total for this year then the overall improvement will likely cause UGA to climb the Havoc Rate rankings quite a bit, to say nothing of offseason additions from the 2019 class.
Freshmen weren’t a significant part of the TFL equation for last year’s major havoc-gaining teams, but few programs can boast of the kind of freshmen UGA possesses.
The Bulldogs’ defense could be supplemented this season by freshman defensive lineman Travon Walker and freshmen linebackers Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean – all three of which are former 5-star recruits.
Add a couple of other highly-regarded 4-star prospects into that mix to go along with the talented crop of returning veterans, and all of a sudden it’s not too hard to imagine the Bulldogs might indeed “do more” where Havoc Rate is concerned this season.
NOTE: The video above was recorded prior to Brenton Cox’s departure from UGA.