Why this 2021 Georgia team is better equipped to win it all than the 2017 team
In my heart of hearts, I believe it’s Georgia’s year.
To be clear, I believe it’s Georgia’s year to win it all. That wasn’t some snarky way to say I believe it’s Georgia’s year … to ultimately come up short yet again. That’d be mean.
Then again, that’d be fitting for the Dawgs given the way that things have gone in the past 4 decades. It’s how it went in 2017. That team had the all-world defense, the all-world rushing attack and the promising young quarterback. It felt like Georgia’s time when Sony Michel walked it off against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. It felt like Georgia’s time up 13 points with 21 minutes left against Alabama in the title game. It was Georgia’s time, until it wasn’t.
We can’t predict “2nd-and-26” moments. There’s no way we can sit here in the second weekend of October and see how Georgia would execute a Cover 2 against a true freshman quarterback with the season on the line.
Are there Georgia fans assuming that some equivalent is bound to happen this year? Sure. It’d be weird if there wasn’t a jaded vibe from a fan base who, contrary to what Bo Nix said, doesn’t exactly have a history of catching all the breaks.
But call me crazy for thinking that Georgia’s 2021 roster is built to win it all in a way that the 2017 team wasn’t.
What do I mean by that? Let’s think about it.
In fact, I’ll do you one better. I’ll break it down category by category to prove that:
The overall talent
I know. Georgia is never lacking talent needed to win a title. If national titles were won based on talent alone, the 1980 jokes would’ve faded a long, long time ago. But consider this. Since 247sports started tracking talent composite in 2015, the national champion ranked an average of No. 4. That 2017 team, ironically enough, ranked No. 4. Talent wasn’t lacking.
(By the way, I should explain “talent composite.” It’s entirely based on the level of recruit your program brings in. The more 5-star recruits you sign, the higher your 247sports talent composite ranking is. It doesn’t factor in development, but it lets you know who has essentially given themselves the best chance to win based on their recruiting.)
In 2021, Georgia’s talent composite ranking is at No. 2 overall, but it is 0.10 away from No. 1 Alabama in overall points. As in, Alabama has a 1,001.89 to 1,001.79 advantage. Those 2 teams were the first to ever crack 1,000 points using 247sports’ system dating to 2015.
In other words, 2021 UGA is the No. 2 most talented team in the 247sports composite rankings era, and only by the slimmest of margins.
UGA also has 8 more 5-star players and 4 more 4-star players on the 2021 roster than it had in 2017. That’s 12 more blue-chip recruits, and a 73% increase in 5-star talent available. Even at Georgia, that’s a significant difference.
The offensive balance
There’s an obvious reason Georgia had the offensive identity it had in 2017. When you’ve got Michel, Nick Chubb and D’Andre Swift running behind one of the most talented offensive lines in America, yes, you’re going to be more run-heavy no matter who your quarterback is. When you blow teams out, that number skews even more. When you have a true freshman quarterback, that number skews to even higher levels.
That 2017 team didn’t care that it mostly lacked balance because it still had a top-20 offense. But here’s the side-by-side of just how the 2017 Georgia offense balance looked compared to this year’s squad:
Now remember that Georgia had that ratio for Stetson Bennett IV getting the majority of the reps so far this season. For now, let’s assume there’s a world in which JT Daniels is healthy as the starter moving forward when UGA plays for an SEC Championship and more.
With Daniels as the starter in 6 games, here’s how those numbers would compare to 2017 Georgia (excluding the Vandy game because the dude only played a quarter):
What should be the takeaway from that? Um, it’s clear that Georgia can be more balanced and versatile with Daniels as the starter than either Bennett or freshman Fromm. That’s not to take away anything from what either of them accomplished. Both showed they could be efficient, and with the way Bennett aired it out against Auburn, we can safely say he’s better prepared to run Todd Monken’s offense than he was at this time last year.
Still, I’ll stand by the belief that Daniels is the better bet to lead the program to that national championship level if healthy. Bennett’s best hope is to be 2015 Jake Coker, which is entirely possible based on what we’ve seen so far in 2021.
Wait. Do I actually have to break this down? Nah.
That 2017 defense was good enough to win it all, and so is the 2021 defense. If you’re still sleeping on the latter because that group hasn’t faced a top 30 offense yet, just turn on the film. You’ll see Jordan Davis bulldozing mortals, Nakobe Dean befuddling offensive lines and Jalen Carter throwing quarterbacks down like rag dolls.
The only debate is how much better the 2021 defense is compared to the 2017 group. We’ll save that for another day, though.
The lack of elite quarterbacks at the top
It’s pretty well-documented how wide open this year feels within the top 10. It’s not fully in 2007 mode, but Alabama losing in the first half of the season makes it feel like we’re at least in 2014 mode. So why might that be the case?
Let’s just look at the quarterbacks in the top 8 of the AP Poll:
- No. 1 Georgia, Stetson Bennett/JT Daniels — Only facing them in practice
- No. 2 Iowa, Spencer Petras — No. 8 in Big Ten in quarterback rating
- No. 3 Cincinnati, Desmond Ridder — UGA already beat him last season in the Peach Bowl with lesser defense
- No. 4 Oklahoma, Spencer Rattler/Caleb Williams — Just benched starter for a true freshman
- No. 5 Alabama, Bryce Young — Completed 58% of passes in loss to unranked team
- No. 6 Ohio State, CJ Stroud — Lost only matchup vs. ranked competition
- No. 7 Penn State, Sean Clifford — Hurt in loss to Iowa & averaged < 6 yards/attempt in past 2 starts
- No. 8 Michigan, Cade McNamara — Averaging 164.3 passing yards in 6 starts
See what I’m getting at here?
All of those quarterbacks are vulnerable. There isn’t someone like 2017 Tua Tagovailoa in that group. At least not yet. That’s the byproduct of guys like Rattler, DJ Uiagalelei and Sam Howell having disappointing seasons. There are a whole bunch of teams in that group who either have shaky veterans like Petras and Clifford, or there are teams that have unproven commodities at the position.
Compare that group to the 2019 Playoff field. We had Justin Fields vs. Trevor Lawrence in 1 matchup and then Joe Burrow vs. Jalen Hurts in the other. All 4 of those dudes are NFL starters in 2021. Even last year, we had guys like Mac Jones and Kyle Trask who were on record-setting paces against SEC-only schedules. In 2017, Georgia had to get through peak-Baker Mayfield.
This year? That’s totally up in the air. I’d say that benefits a Georgia defense that might be the safest bet of any specific unit in America right now.
It was easy to forget in 2017, Smart was a second-year head coach. Not many coaches can say that in game No. 28, they’re trying to win a national title. In Nick Saban’s game No. 28 as a head coach, he was just trying to get a mediocre Michigan State team an early-October win against Iowa (he failed). Even Dabo Swinney’s game No. 28 as a head coach was trying to get 3-3 Clemson a win against Georgia Tech (he succeeded).
I bring that up not to make excuses for Smart, who admittedly failed to properly adjust to Tagovailoa replacing Hurts in the second half of the 2017 title game. But we’re not used to seeing coaches with such little experience in such big moments. Smart is now in Year 6 as a head coach. If he makes it to a national championship, it’ll be career game No. 81. If you don’t think the UGA coach has learned a thing or two during that stretch, well, I think you’re mistaken.
Is it possible that Smart finds a way to torpedo his teams chances with a 2018 SEC Championship-like decision to run a fake punt with Fields to try and put the game away? Of course. We can’t ever rule that out.
But if you had a choice between the coach with 27 games under his belt vs. 80 games under his belt, who are you taking? It’s not close.
Consider that my way of saying …
Nothing is a given in this sport. As much as we talk about the lack of parity among the nation’s elite, it feels like that dam is ready to bust open in 2021. Maybe not in a 2007-like way in which a 2-loss team wins it all, but Georgia is the team who has been able to avoid all the chaos so far.
For crying out loud, Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have a combined 4 losses and we’re only in the second week of October.
With 6-0 Georgia, we’re talking about the Power 5 team with the largest average margin of victory (+34.3) in America. That’s 6 points better than Ohio State, 12 points better than Alabama, 16 points better than Iowa, 17 points better than Oklahoma and 20 points better than Oregon. It’s not really a debate who the most dominant team in America has been. Even Cincinnati, playing at the Group of 5 level, only has an average margin of victory of +28.3.
So far, everything tells me this Georgia team is on a straight-line path to a national title. The same was true in 2017, albeit in a different fashion.
Georgia spent the past 4 years knocking on the door. After the last 4 decades, it feels like Georgia isn’t just ready to open the door; it wants to run through it.
And if Davis is the one leading the charge, the rest of the college football world had better take cover.