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Trading Yards For Havoc: Why Georgia’s Defense Will Both Regress And Improve in 2020

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NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Baylor Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself bracing for bad news every time you log onto Twitter. So far, we haven’t seen any cancellations or postponements to the SEC schedule. As I summarized here a few weeks ago, college football is likely to happen in some form due to the amount of money at stake.

Despite that, football season has felt a bit like Marcus Aurelius’s Rome in ‘The Gladiator’- a dream that would vanish if spoken about in anything above a whisper. Due to fear of jinxing things, I haven’t spoken about what might actually happen on the field this season. Fortunately, there has been some good news lately. Major League Baseball is playing games, the NFL is starting training camps this Tuesday, the WNBA is playing games and the MLS is too. Most importantly for college football, many teams that had previously reported high numbers of positive Covid-19 cases are now reporting zero cases. Administrators are saying that they feel like they can keep players safe. We still have no clue when the Bulldogs might kickoff the season, but I feel confident that they will.

So, let’s turn our heads towards how the Dawgs might look on the field.

I was recently fortunate enough to join frequent collaborator Josh Hancher (@DawgStats on Twitter) and fellow DawgSports contributor Nathan Lawerence on Nathan and Justin Bray’s Chapel Bell Curve Podcast. We mostly talked about how to have College Football in the era of Coronavirus, but towards the end Nathan asked a very interesting question.

With Georgia returning nine starters off of the country’s number one defense in 2019, how insanely good should we expect Georgia’s defense to be in 2020?”

It’s a great question, and I think it depends on how you define “good.”

The Dawgs gave up just 12.6 points per a game. They surrendered just 276 yards per game. It is very easy to look at what Georgia did on defense last year and assume they will be as good or better because they return so many players on that side of the ball. I don’t think they will.

The only SEC teams that didn’t have their starting quarterback go down last year were Texas A&M, Auburn, Georgia and LSU. Georgia’s defense was incredible last year, but facing backup quarterbacks does help the numbers. That being said, there’s a bigger reason why I think Georgia will give up more points and yards in 2020 than they did in 2019, and that reason is Todd Monken.

Monken left the Browns because they didn’t give him full control over play calling. Logic says that he was promised creative control over the offense when he left the NFL and took a job in the college ranks.

If you look at Monken’s history, there are some formational similarities, but he appears to be the type of coach who lets personnel dictate scheme. Some folks have labeled Monken as an Air Raid offensive coordinator. That’s not correct, but it is definitely fair to say that he is a pass-first play caller.

What’s also clear is that Monken offenses score points. That’s good. It will make Georgia a healthier and more well-rounded football program to have an offense that is more capable of explosive plays than the one in 2019 was. So what does this have to do with the defense?

Well first off, explosive plays create more possessions in games. Georgia ranked 18th in average time of possession in 2019. The Dawgs struggled to get chunk plays through the air, especially after Lawerence Cager was lost for the season due to injury. When the team scored touchdowns they did it on long drives.

Another effect of Georgia’s offensive woes last season was that the Dawgs didn’t build big leads very often. That means teams tended to stay in their base offensive packages and run the gameplan that they came into the game with. If Monken’s offense is as successful as I expect in 2020, you will see more games where teams scrap their plans in the third quarter and run full no-huddle air-raid attacks in an attempt to lengthen the game. That is another factor that would lead to more possessions and more yards given up by the defense.

In the lead up to the 2019 season, we read article after article about how Kirby Smart was preaching “havoc rate.” Havoc rate is measured by the percentage of plays that a defense creates a turnover, tackle for loss or a sack. Despite leading the NCAA in team defense, Georgia only averaged just over one turnover a game last year. Every other team in the Top 14 averaged at least 1.5 turnovers a game. The Dawgs also ranked just 83rd in the NCAA with only 1.8 sacks per a game.

So what does all of that mean? Georgia had a very good tackling football team in 2019. FBS teams on average miss 15.5% of tackles, but Georgia’s missed tackle rate was only 7% in 2019, which was #1 in the nation. A low number of missed tackles is usually a good indicator of a defense that excels against the run. Georgia faced a lot of offenses who were starting backup quarterbacks, and they forced those offenses to pass.

There is no reason to think that Georgia will digress significantly in their tackling ability, but a lack of practice due to Covid-19 protocols could potentially have a negative effect early in the schedule.

To summarize what we just looked at, an extremely good Georgia defense happened to also play a lot of backup quarterbacks in 2019. Despite being below average at creating turnovers and sacks, they still lead the nation in total defense.

In 2020, I don’t expect them to face as many backup quarterbacks, but who knows how Covid-19 will impact rosters. Because I expect the UGA offense to be more explosive and productive under Todd Monken in 2020, I expect the UGA defense to give up more points and yards per game. I don’t expect Georgia to regress to the point of giving up tons of points, but I think the Dawgs will see more potent attacks in the regular season with Alabama, an improved Bo Nix, a Mike Bobo coached Collin Hill, and a Mizzou team that I expect will find a way to produce points under new coach Eli Drinkwitz all on the schedule.

I am hopeful that Kirby Smart will take off his old defensive coordinator hat and see this as a net positive if it means Georgia becomes more efficient on offense. While I would be shocked if Georgia doesn’t regress in areas like yards per game and points per game, I also expect bunches and bunches of havoc.

Georgia has more pass-rushing talent than we have ever seen in Athens. Azeez Ojulari, Adam Anderson, Jermaine Johnson, Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean are all coming into just their second year of major college football. All of them showed pass-rushing prowess at times last year, and it is fair to expect a leap from all of them with another year in a major college conditioning program. Malik Herring is back at defensive end after being the highest graded player of any returning defender in the SEC by Pro Football Focus last year. He is joined by freak athlete Travon Walker. Jordan Davis will be back in the middle of the line after a superb year in 2019. If I was a quarterback, I wouldn’t look forward to playing that line.

Georgia loses J.R. Reed at strong safety, but Lewis Cine showed flashes of big time playmaking ability in the Sugar Bowl. Eric Stokes, Tyrique Stevenson and Tyson Campbell form one of the more formidable group of cover guys in the SEC, and team leader and turnover machine Richard LeCounte is back at the free safety spot.

I expect the run defense to continue being a strength for Georgia in 2020. We’ve already covered why I think teams will be throwing a lot when facing the Bulldogs this season, but you can add that to the list. That will provide the Dawgs with ample opportunity to pin their ears back and rush the quarterback. It will also put quarterbacks in the unenviable position of having to force balls into coverage against a strong Georgia secondary.

Georgia had 28.5 sacks and 7 INT’s in 14 games in 2019. If we see a full schedule for the Bulldogs in 2020 I expect a school record number of sacks by the team, but for now let’s just say they will set a school record in sacks per a game. I also expect more interceptions in 2020 than Georgia had in 2019.

That means more drive-killing plays by the Bulldogs defense, and more shorter fields for the UGA offense.

While it might look like a step back in certain columns on the stat sheet, I think this scenario will help Georgia when it comes to game control and putting tallies in the win column.

Georgia’s defense will be just as good in 2020 as they were in 2019, and they might even be better, but the formula for success will be different.