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Georgia’s Defense Lived Up To Its Billing As One Of The Best Ever

As the Georgia Bulldogs celebrated the program’s first national championship in 41 years, it didn’t take long for the feel-good spotlight to refocus on the unit most responsible for the outcome.

“They won this game for us,” Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV said. He wasn’t talking about the Bulldogs offense, which despite being outgained found the end zone twice over a crucial five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter. Bennett was instead crediting the Georgia defense. 

The supercharged aerial attack of the Alabama Crimson Tide averaged nearly 40 points per game this season and reached plus-territory on nine drives against the Bulldogs. But all it had to show for its efforts was just 18 points — the team’s fewest in more than three years — and a 15-point defeat in the national final.

“I think our defense is definitely in the history books,” quipped safety Lewis Cine, Georgia’s leading tackler this season and the game’s defensive MVP. In a sport that so often trains its attention on playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, it was Cine and his unit that captured national attention and ensured a place in the pantheon of the greatest defenses of the modern era. As measured by defensive efficiency, Georgia’s 2021 defense is the second-best of any national title-winning team since 2005,1 the first year for which data is available.

Made in the image of coach Kirby Smart, Georgia’s spread-optimized defense wrought carnage all season long. South Carolina coach Shane Beamer seemed to fall apart when he so much as attempted to describe it to a reporter. Georgia’s defense consistently dismantled opposing offenses throughout the season. In all but one game, opponents averaged negative EPA/play.

Georgia held its opponents in check

Georgia’s opponents in 2021 with expected points added (EPA) per play in that game vs. over the season as a whole

EPA/Play
Game Georgia Opponent Game Season Diff.
1 #3Clemson -0.39 0.00 -0.39
2 UAB -0.51 +0.10 -0.61
3 South Carolina -0.21 -0.05 -0.16
4 Vanderbilt -0.58 -0.10 -0.48
5 #8Arkansas -0.35 +0.11 -0.46
6 #18Auburn -0.20 +0.07 -0.27
7 #11Kentucky -0.01 +0.17 -0.18
8 Florida -0.24 +0.10 -0.34
9 Missouri -0.13 +0.09 -0.22
10 Tennessee -0.05 +0.17 -0.22
11 Georgia Tech -0.31 0.00 -0.31
12 #3Alabama +0.28 +0.22 +0.06
13 #2Michigan -0.15 +0.17 -0.32
14 #1Alabama -0.11 +0.22 -0.33

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Nationwide, teams scored 28.5 points per game this season, down from recent years but in line with the upward-moving general scoring trends seen in both college and the NFL. Alabama was the only team that managed to put up more than 17 points against the Bulldogs, who shut out three Power Five opponents and held five other teams to fewer than 10 points. The history books were ripped open as early as the season opener, when Georgia held Clemson — and preseason Heisman contender QB D.J. Uiagalelei — to 3 points, the Tigers’ fewest ever under coach Dabo Swinney. Then came a three-week streak in October when Georgia held a trio of top-20 opponents2 to a combined 23 points. “We have a mindset on defense: Nobody in the end zone,” Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis said at the time. 

This past season was the third consecutive that saw the average drive score rate3 increase to an all-time high, yet Georgia held opponents to a rate that was 21.7 percentage points lower than the national average and allowed just 0.77 points per drive, the lowest figure of the playoff era.

The Bulldogs led the nation in the majority of defensive metrics, including those that show up in the traditional box score — opponent points per game (10.2), yards per play allowed (4.16) — and those that don’t — red zone efficiency (28.1 percent), goal-to-go efficiency (30.8 percent) and tackle percentage (88.7). 

All of it was on display in Lucas Oil Stadium. Five weeks removed from a star turn in the SEC Championship Game, Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young coughed up a career-high two interceptions and was sacked four times, though he was without the services of the Tide’s two game-breaking receivers. He was just the latest quarterback to be humbled by Georgia, which held QBs to the nation’s lowest adjusted Quarterback Rating (16.5) and adjusted completion percentage (59.1 percent) this season. 

When Alabama reached the end zone with 10:14 left in the fourth quarter, it should have been cause for celebration. Over 15 games and 179 drives this season, Georgia allowed a mere 14 offensive touchdowns and 153 points, both the fewest by any team in a full season in the playoff era.4

Facing a formidable defensive front that featured projected first-round NFL draft picks Davis and defensive end Travon Walker — with linebacker Nakobe Dean, another likely first-round pick, stationed just behind them — it was even more difficult for teams to establish anything on the ground. In the semifinal, Alabama smashed Cincinnati behind a 301-yard rushing showcase. But against Georgia, the Tide managed just 30 yards on 28 carries. The Bulldogs allowed three rushing touchdowns all season, tied for the second-fewest allowed by any team since 2004, the first year for which data is available. 

The talent assembled in Athens and the scheme that governed it ultimately made up one of the greatest defenses of the modern era. That it came the season after six Georgia defenders were selected in the NFL draft — among a record nine Bulldogs selected overall — makes it even more impressive.  

"When it's over, that's when we want to compare ourselves to the overall great defenses that have played football," Dean told ESPN in November. "That's our mindset, the same mindset we've had since summer workouts, since our first practice, since our first game.” With the pinnacle reached, the Bulldogs’ title-winning campaign will be remembered most by what Dean and his teammates accomplished on the defensive side of the ball. Each of the past two national championship-winning teams — Alabama in 2020 and LSU in 2019 — drew a majority of acclaim from record-setting offensive production. That wasn’t the case for Georgia, a defensive powerhouse that ended the national final with, of all things, a sack.

Footnotes

  1. Trailing 2011 Alabama.

  2. Arkansas, Auburn and Kentucky.

  3. The percentage of drives that included a field goal or touchdown.

  4. Excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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