Georgia heads to Auburn Saturday with a chance to clinch the SEC East, and on the shortlist of top Playoff contenders. However, there’s seemingly a lingering feeling among some UGA fans that the Bulldogs’ offense might not quite be good enough to achieve those goals.
Those concerns are probably overstated.
The fact is there’s still time for UGA’s offense to step up and prove it’s championship worthy, and this Saturday at Auburn would be a great place for that start.
UGA’s offense hasn’t exactly been bad to date. It just hasn’t been great. The Bulldogs are 36th in the country in scoring (averaging 33.7 points per game), 32nd in total offense and 22nd in Football Outsiders’ FEI ranking of offensive efficiency.
By comparison, last year’s national champion, Clemson, was third in total offense, fourth in scoring offense and seventh in FEI.
Yet there is one recent title winner that looks a lot like these Bulldogs, and that team’s story ought to give UGA fans hope.
And it happens to be one Kirby Smart knows well.
Alabama won the national championship in 2015 – Smart’s last year as Crimson Tide defensive coordinator – with an offense that was 24th in FEI, 30th in scoring and 45th in total offense.
How’d they do it? You’ve probably already guessed they leaned on an elite defense.
In 2015, Alabama was first in defensive FEI, tied for second in points allowed and third in total defense — numbers similar to UGA this season.
In fact, this year’s UGA defense (second in points allowed, fifth in total defense and sixth in FEI) fits in well with a lot of recent CFP national champions. The last four have been in the top 10 nationally in all three categories.
The only national champion in the CFP era not to field a top-10 defense in the advanced and traditional statistics was Ohio State in 2014.
By comparison, recent national championship offenses haven’t been nearly as dominant. Clemson in 2018 is the only CFP national champion to finish in the top 10 in scoring.
In fact, the average offensive ranking of national champions over the last five years is 10th in FEI, 16th in scoring and 20th in total offense.
I joked Monday on DawgNation Daily that the old mantra of “defense wins championships” is one of those sayings we’ve heard so long we no longer verify it – sort of like waiting 30 minutes to swim after you’ve eaten.
However, the connection between defense and championships in college football appears to still be pretty strong.
This isn’t to say UGA’s offensive performance doesn’t matter. It definitely needs to improve some, but “some” improvement might be enough – as long as the Bulldogs continue to keep opponents off the scoreboard.
Three of the last four national champions have been either first or second nationally in points allowed.
And in 2015, a stingy Alabama defense gave the Crimson Tide’s offense time to find its footing.
In late October that season, Alabama had to scratch out a 19-14 win against Tennessee in a game in which quarterback Jake Coker had zero touchdowns, an interception and was sacked five times. The game also marked the third time that season the Crimson Tide trailed at the half at home.
“We didn’t play that great,” Alabama coach Nick Saban admitted after the game.
However, the close call against Tennessee also became a turning point for the Crimson Tide. Alabama followed that performance by averaging 37 points per game in its final four regular season games, the SEC championship game and two College Football Playoff games.
UGA could match that feat, but doing so will probably require doing what Alabama did: feeding its best player.
Alabama running back Derrick Henry – who won the Heisman in 2015 – averaged 34 carries per game (!) over the final six games for the Crimson Tide, excluding late November cupcake Charleston Southern.
Georgia’s best offensive player is D’Andre Swift, and while no one would suggest Swift get as many carries as Henry did then, it’s probably fair to say Swift should be touching the ball as much as possible down the stretch for the Bulldogs.
That didn’t necessarily happen Saturday vs. Missouri. Swift only had 12 carries for 83 yards. The Tigers’ defensive game plan was almost certainly the reason why.
“They had a lot of people in the box,” Swift said postgame. “It was one of those teams that plays unique defenses – trying to outnumber us every down, so it was tough sledding.”
Swift’s assessment seems like a fair description, but UGA offensive coordinator James Coley will see similar defensive looks the rest of the season, and – given Swift’s value – Coley must be clever in ensuring Swift isn’t neutralized, no matter how tough the sledding is.
For instance, Swift started the year as UGA’s leading returning receiver – with 32 catches for 297 yards and three touchdowns in 2018. Yet this season, Swift has just 15 catches – and five of those have gone for a yard or less.
For an offense battling stacked boxes, involving Swift more as a receiver seems like a simple fix.
One way or another, whether as a pass catcher or a traditional running back, if the Bulldogs can feature Swift the way Alabama once featured Henry, they might have just enough offense to pair with a dominant defense to make the stretch run a memorable one.