There's only 1 thing that could prevent Georgia's defense from being historically good
If I’m predicting who will have the nation’s No. 1 defense, sorry, I’m going to be boring. Boring is picking the same team that finished No. 1 last year — Georgia.
In my defense, the Dawgs return 80% of their defensive production thanks to the key returns of guys like Richard LeCounte, Monty Rice and Azeez Ojulari. Picking against Georgia to have the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense again would be bold.
More interesting is to predict just how good this unit can be. Can it be 2011 Alabama? That group allowed 8.2 points per game and only allowed Georgia Southern to exceed 14 points (that’s not a typo).
Or maybe the more modern comp for 2020 Georgia is 2018 Clemson. That group actually allowed more points (13.1) than 2019 Georgia, but it surrendered a combined total of 29 points in the ACC Championship, Cotton Bowl and College Football Playoff National Championship. That’s certainly what Georgia aspires to be, and if it produces a national championship like both of those defenses did, that’ll be the new gold standard in Athens.
But maybe there’s another team that should factor into that discussion — 2017 Troy.
Wait, what? Why on earth would it make any sense whatsoever to compare Georgia’s 2020 defense to a Sun Belt team?
Well, in many ways, Georgia is trying to do something that Troy did with Neal Brown. That is, have an elite defense that pairs with an Air Raid offense. That’s the only thing that would give me pause from predicting Georgia to have a historically good defense.
Even just having a solid defense alongside an Air Raid offense has been a rarity in college football, though Troy’s 2017 squad showed it was possible. A win in Death Valley against LSU reminded us of that, though Brown admittedly deviated from his Air Raid principles that night in order to take down the Tigers. That Troy defense finished No. 11 in scoring in 2017.
Mike Leach, who is one of the founding fathers of the Air Raid, had 1 top-20 defense in his 18 years as a Power 5 head coach at Texas Tech and Washington State. Kevin Sumlin’s variation of the Air Raid offense never paired with a top-20 defense at Houston or Texas A&M, and the defenses paired with Sonny Dykes’ Air Raid rarely even sniffed a top-70 ranking during his stops at Louisiana Tech, Cal and SMU. Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid never paired with a defense that ranked better than No. 86 at Texas Tech, and Dana Holgorsen’s defenses never cracked the top 30 at West Virginia.
Does that mean that Georgia is destined for massive defensive regression in Year 1 of Todd Monken’s Air Raid? Not at all. The Dawgs are loaded with proven veteran experience, and obviously Kirby Smart didn’t go anywhere. He was the defensive coordinator on that historically dominant 2011 Alabama defense … and 3 consecutive top-15 defenses at Georgia.
But there’s a reason the Air Raid offense has become synonymous with lackluster defensive play. It doesn’t prioritize controlling the clock, and when it doesn’t work, it puts a lot of pressure on a defense over the course of a game.
In Monken’s time as a play-caller — he didn’t have play-calling duties with Tampa Bay until 2018 — here’s how his team’s defenses ranked:
[table “” not found /]
Georgia fans, I know what you’re thinking. Nobody is going to sit here and say that Oklahoma State or Southern Miss had even a fraction of the defensive talent that Georgia had. The Dawgs’ 2020 defense will inevitably be the best that Monken has been paired alongside. An Air Raid offense has never been paired with a front 7 with as much depth and upside as Georgia has thanks to guys like Malik Herring, Nolan Smith and Quay Walker (that “no-name defense” appears destined for some All-American seasons).
But it’s at least fair to wonder about why the potential hesitation to make this move was there. It wasn’t just that Georgia always seemed to have a bevy of capable backs and All-American offensive linemen. You need those things in the Air Raid, too. There had to be some concern as to how this would impact Georgia’s ability to play the sound, gap-disciplined defense that Smart built his foundation on.
Watching the offensive limitations, however, forced Smart’s move to modernize. Perhaps getting smacked in the face in the SEC Championship by LSU’s drastic year-to-year offensive overhaul was the final straw. After all, failing to hit 30 points in the final 7 games vs. SEC competition wasn’t acceptable for the talent that Georgia had. It also wasn’t the best look when to have an All-SEC running back, D’Andre Swift, correctly say in the middle of the season that the offense needed to take more shots downfield.
Georgia addressed that with Monken, and even if it hurts the defense some, the goal is trying to get to the level that LSU was at last year. Statistically speaking, the Tigers actually had their worst defense during Dave Aranda’s 4 years in Baton Rouge. But with the exception of some understandable post-Ole Miss nitpicking, those defensive shortcomings were largely overlooked because LSU’s offense tore up the NCAA record books en route to arguably the best season in college football history.
And as Alabama fans know, consecutive seasons with historic offenses coincided with 2 of the more frustrating defenses of the Nick Saban era. Some put that all on Pete Golding, while others pointed out that defense isn’t as easy when a high-powered passing offense has 2-play drives.
Granted, neither Alabama nor LSU ran the Air Raid. There will be differences in terms of the scheme, though none of them abandon the run and throw the ball 50 times per game like Leach’s version of the Air Raid. Monken described his version as “throwing to win.” His RPO-heavy philosophy clashed with Freddie Kitchens, who called the plays during the Browns’ letdown of a 2019 season. The question now is if Monken, who reportedly has total control over the offense, is going to clash with Smart’s defense.
Will Monken’s offense have a slow start to the season after a pandemic-limited offseason? And if it does, how will Smart and Georgia’s defense react to that?
If last year was any indication, a slow offensive start won’t deter the defensive veterans. Say what you want about Georgia’s 2019 limitations, but having guys like LeCounte step up after offensive duds and say “we know we’ve got each others’ backs, no matter what,” certainly kept that team together. It’ll likely take much more than a new offensive philosophy to prevent Georgia from being one of the nation’s best defenses.
But it’s at least fair to wonder if Georgia’s new offense — whether it’s good or bad — prevents the defense from reaching new heights.