At the highest levels of college football, only the slimmest of margins separate the best teams. That’s never been more clear than in the tiny space between Alabama and Georgia.
Entering the 2019 season, Alabama had the highest-rated roster in the country, at 99.3 percent in Bill Connelly’s weighted four-year recruiting rankings.1 Georgia, meanwhile, was almost exactly tied for first, also with a rating of 99.3, behind by mere hundredths of a percentage point. This is only one way of measuring a football team, of course, but it speaks to how close coach Kirby Smart’s program was to the top — and if not for a few close calls in the biggest games, it could have gotten there.
The Bulldogs have not won a national championship since 1980, though they have won double-digit games in a season 13 times this century. That history makes them one of the SEC’s top programs. It may also be their ceiling until they take their offense to the next level.
Last year, the Bulldogs’ defense was their best yet — over the course of the season, they led the nation in win probability added (+0.13) and finished third in expected points added. But the Georgia offense ranked just 121st in win probability added and 42nd in expected points added, inching dangerously into the extreme quadrant populated by teams with stingy defenses and mediocre offenses.
Georgia’s offense will be under the microscope this weekend in a rare regular-season showdown against Alabama, the dynasty that crushed the Bulldogs’ title dreams in 2017 (on an overtime heave from then-freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa) and in 2018 (on a stunning effort by backup quarterback Jalen Hurts in the SEC championship game). The teams haven’t played in the regular season since 2015 and won’t meet again until at least 2026, so this matchup represents a valuable opportunity.
The Bulldogs have championship components. They stocked their roster with players from recruiting classes ranked No. 1 (2020 and 2018), No. 2 (2019) or No. 3 (2017). They were No. 2 in the nation in yards allowed per play last season. From 2016 (Smart’s first season) through 2019, they ranked fourth in yards after contact per rush, with running backs like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, as well as 22nd in drop rate and 25th in average yards after the catch. All of the pieces were there but one: an elite quarterback.
It’s not that previous Bulldog quarterbacks haven’t shown promise. From 2017 to 2019, Jake Fromm threw 78 passes for touchdowns against 18 interceptions. But he never quite reached the level of Joe Burrow, Tagovailoa or even Ohio State’s Justin Fields, a Georgia transfer — the top three quarterbacks by total QBR in 2019.2 That last piece of a championship-level team has always been close and yet also elusive.
The answer appeared to arrive last offseason in the form of a Wake Forest transfer named Jamie Newman, who inspired hope about what he could do on an elite team. But Newman opted out of the 2020 season because of concerns about COVID-19, and the other options have been uninspiring. Promising recruit D’Wan Mathis started 8-for-17 for 55 yards and an interception. Southern California transfer JT Daniels suffered an injury in camp and has not thrown a pass yet. By halftime of the season opener, Georgia had moved on to a former walk-on named Stetson Bennett (who, while not the answer the team had in mind entering the season, is third in the country in total QBR at 93.1 after three games).
Last offseason, Georgia made one more critical move, hiring offensive coordinator Todd Monken from the NFL. During his three years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Monken headed up offenses that led the league in air yards per attempt by more than a full yard. In that sense, he was the perfect candidate to speed up Georgia’s plodding offense, and Smart seemed to know it. “People can say, well, ‘Coach Smart wants to play man ball,’” the coach said after last year’s loss in the SEC championship game, apparently aware of the perception of his offense.
Georgia ranked 102nd in the country in passing routes run and 113th in first-down pass rate (32.9 percent) during the first four seasons of Smart’s tenure, indicating Georgia wasn’t taking advantage of the arsenal it had assembled at the skill positions. Even their best team, the 2017 national runner-up, called pass plays on only 34.9 percent of snaps, the lowest rate of any of the 24 playoff teams to date. Has Georgia changed enough? Saturday may provide an answer.
Smart seemed to sum up football’s offensive transformation when he said last year, “I don’t know that the adage ‘defense wins championships’ stands as much as it used to. When you saw scores from the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s and you saw scores of games, it was indicative of defense, compared to now. Now, it’s like, I got to play pretty good defense and I got to score a lot of points.”
Smart’s first four teams played that old-school style of football and won a lot of games. Their next task is to win the biggest ones.