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If You Can't Dazzle 'Em With Defense, Baffle 'Em With Offense

I asked last night, "Is 2006 the Year of the Dog?"  Much to my chagrin, I concluded that, despite College Football Resource's favorable assessment of the Red and Black, this was not the year and, even if it was, C.F.R.'s reasons were not the reasons why it would be.  

These observations sparked a few remarks, including a reply from C.F.R. in which he defended his thesis capably and reasonably, yet nevertheless still quite incorrectly.  

New quarterback, same result?

As always, I would encourage you to read C.F.R.'s initial posting and his subsequent retort in their entirety, but the following are pertinent excerpts:  

As far as Stafford... simply put, that guy is by far the most physically gifted thrower ever to come to Georgia.  It's not even close.  He's the type of talent that if given the opportunity (something many SEC coaches don't permit their quarterbacks to have) and has a grasp of the offense, will absolutely terrorize foes.  To compare Zeier to him is laughable.  

That's exactly my point, in that Stafford is so much more gifted and talented than the first quarterback that comes to mind when Georgia fans think of one, Eric Zeier.  Zeier was not a physical phenom.  He may have had a lot of hype, but there's a difference between hype and actually taking a look at guys' physical gifts and playing ability. . . .  

I find Georgia to be a team that wins despite easy to spot flaws year after year.  David Greene was nothing special and that always bothered me, but he won because Richt's found a way to win with overall talent, just enough offense and a defense that stops people.  They'll do the same this year regardless of who is at quarterback and who is in the backfield and whatever other flaw people want to find.  Georgia's one team I can pencil in for 9-10 wins or more every year with confidence because they've found that formula, and I'm basically acknowledging that.  

It doesn't matter whether they fix that spotty run defense this year, in other words.  They'll still win, because they did just fine last year in spite of it. . . .

From the outset, it must be acknowledged that, while I disagree with the major thrust and underlying assumptions of C.F.R.'s arguments, I appreciate the civil manner in which he expressed his position and I thank him for the many compliments to my alma mater contained in his reply.  Too often, "flame wars" in the blogosphere begin when participants concentrate on the negative and fail to acknowledge the positive, so I wanted to recognize the good parts of C.F.R.'s argument, which are genuine and which I appreciated.  

Let us turn to the matter of Eric Zeier.  For all of C.F.R.'s animadversions upon his abilities, there is no denying that Jmac is right:  Zeier was a hot prospect as a prep player.  Before the future Georgia signal-caller came out of high school, he received some form of Player of the Year award from Superprep, the Macon Touchdown Club, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he was a Parade All-American and a U.S.A. Today All-U.S.A. first-teamer, and he was rated as the No. 1 prospect in the state by the Macon Telegraph and as the No. 1 prospect in the country by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  

If that was "hype," the hype was considerable.  Zeier's collegiate career confirmed that it wasn't just hype, though.  He continues to hold several school passing records and his 11,153 career passing yards established a new S.E.C. record, which later was broken by Heisman Trophy runner-up Peyton Manning.  Zeier, in short, was as good as advertised, but potent offense is not always conducive to effective defense.  

When Ray Goff succeeded Vince Dooley as Georgia's head coach, the running joke in Bulldog Nation was that the torch hadn't been passed, it had been handed off . . . but Coach Goff changed that.  In Coach Dooley's final season (1988), the 'Dawgs averaged 131.8 passing yards per game.  In Eric Zeier's senior season (1994), the Red and Black averaged 338.3 passing yards per game.  

Between Coach Goff's first year in 1989 and his sixth year in 1994, Georgia went from scoring 21.2 points per game to scoring 31.9 points per game.  During the final autumn in which Eric Zeier was wearing silver britches, the Bulldogs scored 41 touchdowns and 30 of those T.D. drives killed less than three minutes' worth of clock time.  

Georgia's quick-strike offense produced a number of shootouts and left the Red and Black D out on the field too long, which is why the 1994 Bulldogs gave up 41 points to Tennessee, 29 points to Alabama, 43 points to Vanderbilt, 30 points to Kentucky, and 52 points to Florida en route to a second straight season without a bowl game.  (1993 and 1994 are the two years in which Eric Zeier was elected the permanent team captain of the Georgia squad.  They also are the only back-to-back bowl-less seasons by the Bulldogs since 1962 and 1963.)  

To succeed in sports, you have to play with desire, but, in the early '90s, Georgia was a little too heavy on the Zeier and a little too light on the D.

As I noted earlier, I have every confidence in Matthew Stafford, I'm glad Georgia got him, and I hope C.F.R. is right about him.  However, we must be careful not to place too great an emphasis on the quarterback.  Yes, a Vince Young can take what was already arguably the country's most talented team and make it a national champion, but a quick glance at the list of Super Bowl-winning signal-callers demonstrates the distinction between individual achievement and getting a ring.  (Trent Dilfer, si; Dan Marino, not so much.)  

Even so, C.F.R. writes:  "When I say yeh there's all these problems but it doesn't matter, it's true.  Georgia had run stopping issues last year as well.  Yet there they were ready to be the #3 team in the nation until Shock got hurt."  

In fact, if we examine the cause of the Bulldogs' three losses last year, we see that, all other things being equal, a healthy D.J. Shockley would have produced an 11-2 record (with a win over Florida) but a more effective run defense would have produced a 12-1 record (with wins over Auburn and West Virginia).  Personally, I'd prefer to change the variable that will give my team two additional wins instead of altering the factor that will give my team one extra victory, but that may just be me.  

Of course, it is tempting to become overly enamored of offensive prowess.  It has pizzazz.  It has sex appeal.  Offense sells tickets.  Chicks dig the long ball.  

The problem, as Sunday Morning Quarterback demonstrates, is that offense is not alone enough, nor is it even the most important of the game's major components.  

There's a reason why no one ever holds up an "O" next to a fence.

Consider some of the great offensive powerhouses in recent college football history.  The 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers.  The 1987 Oklahoma Sooners.  The 1995 Florida Gators.  The 2003 Oklahoma Sooners.  The 2005 U.S.C. Trojans.  How did those teams fare in the national championship game?  

They lost, either because their offenses were stifled by great defenses (Oklahoma was held to 14 points both in the '88 Orange Bowl and in the '04 Sugar Bowl), their weak defenses couldn't stop quality offenses (Miami scored 31 points in the '84 Orange Bowl and Texas scored 41 points in the '06 Rose Bowl), or both (Nebraska outscored Florida by a 62-24 margin in the '96 Fiesta Bowl).  

Not coincidentally, those programs' fortunes were improved when the emphasis was on playing top-drawer D.  The mighty 1983 Cornhuskers gave up 21 or more points in three of their last four regular season games, giving hints of the troubles that awaited them against Miami in the Orange Bowl.  When the Big Red Machine upgraded its speed on defense, though, Nebraska held each of its last seven regular season opponents to 17 or fewer points in 1994 . . . then claimed the national championship with a 24-17 win over the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl.  

The same held true for Florida in 1996, the year after the Gators' Fiesta Bowl debacle against the aforementioned Cornhuskers.  Throughout the Steve Spurrier era in Gainesville, the gunslinger mentality caught up to the Ol' Ball Coach year in and year out, as his quick-strike offenses produced overworked defenses who came up short in a big way at least once a season.  

Florida won nine or more games in each of the Evil Genius's first six seasons in The Swamp, but his losses were due to defensive lapses almost invariably.  The Gators surrendered 45 points apiece to Tennessee and Florida State in 1990, surrendered 38 to Syracuse and 39 to Notre Dame in 1991, surrendered 31 to Tennessee, 30 to Mississippi State, 45 to Florida State, and 28 to Alabama in 1992, surrendered 38 to Auburn and 33 to Florida State in 1993, surrendered 36 to Auburn in 1994, and surrendered 62 to Nebraska in 1995.  Along came Bob Stoops, who upgraded the Gator D . . . and, lo and behold, Florida won a national crown.  

It's the darnedest thing . . . even with Steve Spurrier calling the offensive plays, the Gators weren't able to finish No. 1 as long as this guy was running Florida's defense.  Go figure.

Coach Stoops subsequently moved on to Oklahoma, where the Sooners have become an offensive powerhouse . . . yet O.U. has stumbled along the way, usually losing due to defensive lapses, as Coach Stoops's troops allowed 30 points to Texas A&M and 28 to Oklahoma State in 2002, 35 to Kansas State in 2003, 55 to Southern California in 2004, and 41 to U.C.L.A. and 45 to Texas in 2005.  In 2000, though, Oklahoma held 10 opponents below 17 points . . . and, surprise, surprise, finished the year ranked No. 1.  

Consider, too, the case of the Auburn Tigers.  Tommy Tuberville lost at least four games in each of his first five seasons on the Plains before having a breakout season in 2004.  The War Eagle went 13-0, captured the S.E.C. crown, and made a pretty good case for a national championship game berth.  What caused Auburn's resurgence?  

Those who are dazzled by offense point to Al Borges as the miracle worker who dragged S.E.C. offenses kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and there can be no doubt that Coach Borges took full advantage of his team's strengths.  Statistically, Auburn's 2004 team was impressive offensively.  

It's a proven fact that fat guys know how to coach offense.  I think it's because the letter "O" reminds them of a donut.

How did Auburn really win those games, though?  Against the four toughest defenses the Plainsmen faced in 2004, Auburn scored 24 points against Georgia, 21 points against Alabama, 16 points against Virginia Tech, and 10 points against Louisiana State.  If your team averages under 18 points per game against first-rate defensive teams, I would respectfully suggest that offensive prowess is not the key to your team's success.  

It does not exactly strain credulity to suggest that, since Auburn held 12 of its 13 opponents to 20 or fewer points---and kept seven of them to 10 or fewer points---the lynchpin of the Tigers' extraordinary 2004 season was a stout defense that limited the Hokies to 13 points, the Volunteers to 10 (in their regular season meeting), the Bayou Bengals to 9, and the Bulldogs to 6.

I say Auburn went undefeated in 2004 because of good D.  C.F.R., presumably, would argue that Auburn went undefeated in 2004 because of good O.  Which of us is right?  What does the evidence of the 2005 season suggest?  

After putting together a 13-0 conference championship campaign in 2004, the Plainsmen did not even make it back to the league title game in 2005.  Where did the drop-off occur?  Surely it must have been on offense; after all, Auburn lost Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown, and Cadillac Williams from its 2004 team.  

Actually, though, the Tigers didn't miss a beat offensively.  In fact, they were as good or better under Coach Borges in 2005 as they had been in 2004.  What, then, accounted for their lack of success?  

One explanation might be that, although Auburn retained its offensive coordinator, it lost its defensive coordinator.  Gene Chizik left the Plains after the Tigers' 13-0 campaign and the War Eagle flew a bit lower defensively in his absence.  The lapse in defensive prowess kept Auburn from repeating as a conference, or even divisional, champion.  

What became of Coach Chizik?  He became the defensive coordinator of the Texas Longhorns, who---again, not coincidentally---went 13-0 and won the national championship.  While U.T. fielded an outstanding offense, led by the exceptional Vince Young, the 'Horns also won a couple (most notably, the regular season finale against Texas A&M, in which Young was not the best quarterback on the field that day) with defense, as well.  

"I'm sure it's just random dumb luck that teams that hire me to run their defenses keep going undefeated."

Denigrate D if you must, but put not your trust in offensive juggernauts unless you also have a defense that can hold the other team to 37 points in the Rose Bowl.  Perhaps there is something to be said for finding "a way to win with overall talent, just enough offense and a defense that stops people," after all.  It sure seemed to work in 1980, when the 'Dawgs won six games by seven or fewer points, but managed to win 'em all to claim an undisputed national title.  

I appreciate C.F.R.'s favorable assessment of the Red and Black and his sincere effort to offer a reasoned rebuttal.  As before, I hope he is right and that Matthew Stafford turns out to be the final piece of the puzzle . . . but, however integral he may prove to be, I continue to believe that football is a team sport and that the achievements of the Georgia Bulldogs will be accomplished by 10 coaches, 85 scholarship athletes, a myriad of support staff and students, and tens of thousands of fans rather than attained by one man.  

There is no "D" in "College Football Resource," but there is one in "Dawg Sports" . . . and, more to the point, in championship-caliber football teams, as well.  

Go 'Dawgs!