Georgia's defense needs to step up in crucial game against Tennessee
Is it time to panic in Athens?
It seems that way based on how people are perceiving Georgia after last week’s loss to Ole Miss. Granted, it was a 45-14 blowout and the Bulldogs hadn’t looked as impressive as their 3-0 record indicated entering the game.
But it seems like few are giving Georgia any chance to win the SEC East, let alone this Saturday’s game against Tennessee. The Vols are currently a 3.5-point favorite despite the game being held at Sanford Stadium. If the line stays in Tennessee’s favor, the Bulldogs will be a home underdog for the first time since 2011.
So is the pessimism surrounding the Dawgs based more on a reaction to one loss or an inflated 3-0 start? Actually, it’s both.
With the exception of Nick Chubb’s bounce-back performance against North Carolina in its season opener, Georgia has managed to barely survive heavily favored matchups.
The Bulldogs defeated Nicholls State, 26-24, in Week 2 and Missouri, 28-27, in Week 3. The team has thrown a true freshman quarterback, Jacob Eason, into the fire immediately — perhaps in hope of sparking the offense — and forced him to throw the football 55 times in his third college football game in that back-and-forth game against Mizzou.
Meanwhile, two former five-star running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, are both battling injuries. Also, all three play behind an offensive line responsible for 12 sacks and 25 tackles for loss through four games.
But above all else, Georgia’s biggest disappointment has been its defense. Last season, the Bulldogs were forced to play up to six freshmen, including one at each position group on defense. But many expected to see drastic improvements in 2016 after an added year of playing time and Georgia’s decision to hire defensive guru Kirby Smart as its new head coach.
Instead, the team has been extremely underwhelming so far. Georgia has allowed 30 points per game (only Kentucky has allowed more) and has only four total sacks (only Vanderbilt has fewer). The Bulldogs are 10th in passing defense, which leads only Mississippi State, Kentucky, Texas A&M (an outlier) and Vanderbilt.
The rushing defense is right in the middle of the conference at seventh but has allowed 4.4 yards per carry, including two games — UNC and Ole Miss — in which the opposing team averaged more than five yards per attempt.
That’s not Georgia football, nor is it typical of a defense coached by Smart. This is a program that annually has one of the best front sevens in the SEC and a defensive coordinator who led one of the most dominant defenses in college football history to a national title last season.
Granted, the Bulldogs did lose the majority of their front seven this offseason, and their new coach is transitioning to a new team/life after Nick Saban. But its not like Smart’s scheme varies much from former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s last season. In fact, Pruitt is finding immediate success with Smart’s former players serving the same job at Alabama.
The excuses for Georgia can only last so long, especially considering the second-winningest coach in school history, Mark Richt, was fired for “failing to live up to expectations” despite the team ending its season with 10 wins.
Claiming Georgia’s defense needs to step up is an understatement, especially in a crucial game against a Tennessee team that has finally found its groove. Every criticism about the Bulldogs would have been valid for the Vols up until the second half of last weekend’s game. But the team finally lived up to the lofty expectations set by many in the preseason and looked like a complete, experienced team against the Gators during their 38-point rally.
As daunting as it may seem, that’s exactly what Georgia’s defense needs to do. The Bulldogs need to show a complete turnaround from a disappointing start and live up to individual expectations. This is a defense filled with four- and five-star prospects.
Schematically, Georgia needs to prove it can stop a read-option quarterback and a strong rushing attack. Joshua Dobbs has consistently been one of the SEC’s best running quarterbacks and finally looked like a prolific passer with a career-best 319 yards and four touchdowns in Week 4.
Georgia can’t allow Dobbs to expose its defensive weakness and allow Tennessee’s receivers to beat them downfield like Ole Miss did last week. It’s going to be a difficult task, but Georgia’s defense needs to be up for the challenge.
The Bulldogs face a make-or-break game in Week 5. It’s early enough for the Bulldogs to run the table in the East, but it’s late enough to be exposed as an overrated team.
On Saturday, we will know Georgia’s true identity and whether its a contender or pretender in an open SEC East.