College football does not lend itself to consensus, but if you asked enough fans to name the best defense the sport has seen this century, you’d probably get a clear answer: 2011 Alabama. The Crimson’s Tide case is overwhelming, no matter the lens used to examine it. Narratively? That team won a national championship game by a 21-0 score, in a rematch with an LSU team that had previously beaten it 9-6. Professionally? Fourteen players from that defense became NFL draft picks. And statistically? A range of traditional and advanced metrics say 2011 Bama is the century’s best defense. Nick Saban is the defining coach of his era, and that 2011 defense is his masterwork.
Any time over the past 10 years, it would have been reasonable to assume that defense would never meet an equal. Yards and expected points added per play have gradually but steadily increased, suggesting defense is a lot harder to play than it was then. No team has sniffed 2011 Bama’s top-line defensive numbers, and the last two national champions have been particularly absurd on offense. But halfway through 2021, the 2011 Tide defense is in real danger of meeting its match, at the hands of the same coach who helped run that unit a decade ago. Kirby Smart, the ex-Saban defensive coordinator and current Georgia head coach, has assembled the sport’s best defense in years.
The No. 1-ranked Dawgs have given up 33 points in six games, all wins. Nobody’s scored more than 13 on Georgia, and two have scored nothing at all. Georgia’s defense has given up two touchdowns, the same amount it has scored, and also added a safety. The Bulldogs’ 5.5 points allowed per game would be the fewest of the century, ahead of 2011 Bama’s 8.15. (Lest anyone think it’s strictly a result of an early season schedule, Georgia’s points allowed per game drop to 5.2 against Power 5 teams only, compared with 7.8 for Alabama a decade ago.) By yards allowed per play, for which ESPN’s Stats & Information Group has data going back to 2004, Georgia’s 3.56 is just behind 2011 Bama’s 3.32 and 2004 North Carolina State’s 3.47. In expected offensive points allowed per play, Georgia’s -0.35 figure leads 2011 Bama’s -0.33 for first place since at least 2004.
Georgia’s defense keeps shutting the door
College football team defenses with the lowest expected points added (EPA) allowed per play since 2004
Repeatedly, and across different metrics, the picture is clear: 2011 Bama has been the gold standard, and 2021 Georgia is threatening that standing to an unprecedented extent.1
The most important area in which Smart has copied Saban is recruiting. Alabama was a singular recruiting force for most of Saban’s tenure, signing up the country’s No. 1 class every year from 2011 to 2017, according to the industry-consensus 247Sports Composite Team Rankings. The Tide are still mega-elite, and in 2021 they signed the highest-rated class in the history of recruiting rankings. Over the past half-decade, though, the Dawgs have joined the Tide in the highest tier of player acquisition. In 2016, Smart’s first year, Georgia had the sixth-most-talented roster among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, based on the recruiting ratings of its players in 247Sports’ Team Talent Composite. Smart signed up a couple of No. 1 classes of his own in 2018 and 2020, and by 2020, Georgia had narrowly passed Bama in its player ratings. In 2021, the Tide and Dawgs are basically tied at the top.
The Dawgs’ rise as a 1B recruiting power to Bama’s 1A is only partly attributable to Smart and his staff. It helps a lot that the state of Georgia has produced a rising share of the country’s blue-chip prospects right as Smart has gotten traction in Athens. But the end result, whatever the blend of driving factors, is that the chess pieces Smart can move around the defensive board are better and faster than their opponents. It’s easy to see how that pays off. One example is that Georgia is blitzing on 18.8 percent of opponent dropbacks, its lowest rate under Smart, but is getting sacks on 12.1 percent of dropbacks — the highest rate under Smart.
After Georgia beat South Carolina 40-13 in September, a reporter asked the losers’ coach, Shane Beamer, if Georgia did anything in particular with its schemes to make life so miserable on the South Carolina offense. Beamer was exasperated in explaining that, no, Georgia didn’t have to do anything special to bully his players. “They’ve got like 100 five-star football players on their defense,” he said. “They have a defensive lineman [Jordan Davis] that weighs 340 pounds and runs better than everybody on this call. They’ve got five-star defensive backs. They’re big and physical and fast. I mean, other than that, they’re really freaking good. That’s why they have the top defense in the country. They’re hard to run the football on, so there wasn’t some magical scheme they came out with tonight. They’ve got five-star recruits everywhere and they play really physical.” He closed by saying, “Damn.”
related: Our 2021 College Football Predictions Read more. »
That’s mostly it. But it’s not all that simple. Smart has spent years laying the seeds of a defense that’s as dominant as 2011 Bama’s but constructed for a different period in college football. A good illustration is a drill Smart brought to Georgia not long after taking the job. The “Oklahoma drill” is an old football staple in which players, usually each in a lineman’s stance, lock horns in an enclosed area and try to put each other on the ground. (The drill has understandable critics.) Smart has a twist on the exercise, which he calls “Millennial Oklahoma.” It works in open space to mimic spread passing situations, with receivers and defensive backs engaging and creating open-field tackling drills that befit an era of the shotgun rather than the I-formation.
Georgia’s defense is built for its time, and it shows on game days, too. With the nickel base defense all the rage now, the Dawgs line up with at least five defensive backs on the field on 68 percent of their snaps. Stopping the pass is where a defense butters its bread. A hint of that is that pass defense accounts for 76.2 percent of Georgia’s total defensive EPA so far, compared to 58.6 percent of Bama’s in 2011.
Watch enough of Georgia (it doesn’t take much), and you’ll see moments where the Bulldogs’ discipline and creativity mix with their talent to make opponents look bad. The decisive play in a season-opening win over Clemson came when safety Christopher Smith sat patiently on a shallow slant route by Justyn Ross, baited QB DJ Uiagalelei and then bodied through Ross, a future NFL receiver, to intercept a pass and go 74 yards for a touchdown. In a rout of then-unbeaten Arkansas a few weeks later, the Bulldogs so confused and then buckled the Hogs’ blockers that four pass-rushers beat six protectors almost immediately at the snap:
Defensive connoisseurs have found much to love in Smart’s defense, which has achieved Saban-like results with a much different (and in some ways less complex) structure.
To stay on its historic course, Georgia will have to hold off offenses that operate much differently than the LSU unit Saban and Smart opposed together in 2011. The two coaches will probably see each other in Atlanta for the SEC Championship in December, and maybe even after that in the College Football Playoff. In Smart’s latter years at Alabama, his counterpart coordinator on the other side of the ball, Lane Kiffin, helped Saban modernize its offense into exactly the kind of attack Georgia’s defense is now designed to stop. If the Dawgs do get over the hump and return to the ranks of national champions, it will be on the strength of another Smart defense that was crafted explicitly for its moment — albeit a time much different than 2011.
Check out our latest college football predictions.