Regression is coming for Georgia's defense, but how much? Let's dig into that
Wipe it clean from your brain right now.
The 2021 Georgia defense is a memory. It was a force perhaps as dominant as any college defense in the 21st century. The Dawgs just allowed 8.8 points per game — that’s if you take away the non-offensive scores allowed — en route to a national title. Even if you don’t take away the non-offensive scores, UGA’s defense was 1.5 points per game better vs. Power 5 competition than any other group in the Playoff era.
That’s not the standard. It’s the outlier.
That means regression is coming in 2022. It’s unavoidable. I mean, Georgia just had 5 defensive players in the 1st round of the NFL Draft and 8 defensive players total. The Dawgs rank No. 122 out of 130 FBS teams in percentage of returning defensive production. That doesn’t include the loss of defensive coordinator Dan Lanning. Even a 5-star factory like the one Kirby Smart built in Athens is going to take a step back.
The question is obvious — how significant is that step back?
We know a few things about this Georgia defense. We know that Kelee Ringo was the national championship hero, and he’s going to be UGA’s top corner. We know that Nolan Smith came on strong in his first season as a starter, and the return of the former No. 1 overall recruit should answer any question about who will be the alpha in that defense. We also know that despite the loss of Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt and Travon Walker to the first round of the NFL Draft, Jalen Carter is arguably the best non-Will Anderson defensive player in America entering 2022.
Those 3 are the cornerstones of UGA’s defense. We expect former 5-star recruits like Xavian Sorey to emerge. We expect decorated former transfer Tykee Smith to become a force covering the slot and being a versatile weapon. We expect Glenn Schumann and Will Muschamp will be able to successfully fill Lanning’s shoes.
There are hurdles to figure out from a personnel standpoint like whether UGA find a true lockdown corner to play opposite of Ringo or if the non-Carter defensive linemen can take on double teams.
What does history tell us about UGA’s regression?
Let’s start with the obvious here. If you’re expecting a 2020 LSU-like fall from grace, remember that Smart ain’t Bo Pelini. If you look at where Smart’s defenses ranked in FBS in scoring, including his time as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, you’ll see that the floor is still extremely high:
- 2008 (Alabama) — No. 7
- 2009 — No. 2
- 2010 — No. 3
- 2011 — No. 1
- 2012 — No. 1
- 2013 — No. 4
- 2014 — No. 6
- 2015 — No. 2
- 2016 (UGA) — No. 35
- 2017 — No. 6
- 2018 — No. 14
- 2019 — No. 1
- 2020 — No. 16
- 2021 — No. 1
- 2022 — TBD
To recap, that’s 14 years of SEC defenses in which Smart at least held the “defensive coordinator” title, and his lone years without a top-7 unit were his first year in Athens in 2016, the post-title group in 2018 and the weird COVID 2020 season. That’s pretty darn good.
Having said that, Smart’s history doesn’t suggest a top-10 defense is imminent in 2022. He has yet to have consecutive seasons at UGA with top-10 groups. He did that every year he was at Alabama, albeit with Nick Saban at his side.
Speaking of Alabama, Smart was a huge piece of the Tide’s historically dominant 2011 defense. If you take away the non-offensive scores, that group allowed a 21st century best 6.5 points per game. That defense and 2001 Miami are the only groups who, if you take away non-offensive scores, had a better statistical season than UGA. All 3 won national titles.
The 4 defenses that allowed single-digit points per game in the 21st century (we’re still taking away non-offensive scores) were 2021 Georgia, 2011 Alabama, 2008 USC and 2001 Miami. All of those non-UGA defenses regressed the following year. Here’s what that regression looked like the following season (year listed is the season after the historic defense):
- 2012 Alabama
- Defensive players lost to NFL Draft: 6
- 3.0 PPG worse
- 66.4 yards/game worse
- FBS scoring defense: No. 1 overall
- 2009 USC
- Defensive players lost to NFL Draft: 8
- 10.8 PPG worse
- 118.7 yards/game worse
- FBS scoring defense: No. 19 overall
- 2002 Miami
- Defensive players lost to NFL Draft: 4
- 9.3 PPG worse
- 14.1 yards/game worse
- FBS scoring defense: No. 22 overall
Two of those 3 teams obviously played for national championships a year after their historic defenses. You could argue that 2 of those 3 teams deserved to win national championships depending on if you believe in extremely late pass interference calls.
USC was the lone team that had a coordinator change. They also lost 8 defensive players to the NFL Draft. So what’s to say that UGA won’t follow in the Trojans’ footsteps after losing a defensive coordinator and 8 defensive players to the NFL Draft? For starters, Pete Carroll isn’t a defensive-minded head coach like Smart. Add the fact that he had a foot out the door with USC’s looming NCAA sanctions and it’s not surprising that the Trojans had such significant defensive regression in 2009.
In the same vein, I also wouldn’t assume that UGA will respond like Alabama did in 2012.
Sure, Smart was the defensive coordinator in that group. But we’re also living in a much different time offensively than we were a decade ago with the way the rules are set up and how more SEC teams have embraced spread concepts with downfield ability. In the Playoff era, we’ve only seen 5 defenses allow an average of 15 points per game or fewer against Power 5 competition (min. 4 games vs. P5 competition). Of course, Smart is responsible for 2 of them.
- 2021 Georgia — 10.7 PPG allowed vs. P5
- 2017 Alabama — 12.2 PPG allowed vs. P5
- 2019 Georgia — 12.9 PPG allowed vs. P5
- 2019 Clemson — 13.8 PPG allowed vs. P5
- 2021 Wisconsin — 14.8 PPG allowed vs. P5
The most likely scenario is that UGA allows at least 15 points per game against Power 5 competition. Shoot, even UGA’s 2017 national runner-up defense allowed 16.9 points per game against Power 5 competition. I’d say that’s about best case scenario for the 2022 squad. Clemson basically posted that number last year and still finished with the No. 2 defense nationally. Granted, that was with a group that had 9 returning starters, and that group was led by elite defensive mind Brent Venables.
Georgia has 4 returning defensive starters. Well, technically it’s only 3, but I’m including Carter, who played 18 more snaps than Davis in 2021. That’s fewer returning defensive starters than the 2012 Alabama squad who somehow returned more than half its starters from that historic 2011 group.
So what does all of this tell us? Is Georgia about to have its worst defense since Year 1 of the Smart era? I wouldn’t bank on that because I’d still expect Smart’s group to allow fewer than 20 points per game (that’s the mark the 2020 group finished with). The conservative approach is that UGA will be somewhere in the 10-13 range nationally with about 17-18 points per game allowed.
That’s perfectly realistic. Anything better than that would be considered a massive win for Smart after losing that much defensive production AND his defensive coordinator. If an SEC East with deeper quarterback talent than any time in recent memory still struggles mightily to score against the Dawgs, that’d be an ominous sign to the rest of the division.
This is supposed to be a floor year for Smart’s defense. And if the floor is through the roof?
Well, we might need to accept reality that it’s Kirby’s world and we’re all living in it.