Kirby Smart and elite defenses go hand in hand.
As Saban’s right-hand man in Tuscaloosa for eight seasons, Alabama’s defenses were the most ferocious and intimidating defenses in all of college football, let alone the SEC. From 2008-2015, the Crimson Tide finished in the top 10 in total defense every season except for one (2014).
Now, in the role of a head coach as opposed to a defensive coordinator, Smart has that same defensive tenacity rolling in Athens. The Georgia Bulldogs’ defense is one of college football’s premier units, meaning that points will come at a rarity for an inconsistent Tennessee Volunteer offense.
Currently, Georgia ranks second in the country in defensive efficiency and first overall in the SEC. In the process, they’ve forced every offense to play an inefficient brand of offensive football. In four games, opposing offenses are averaging a messily 4.91 yards per pass attempt and 3.02 yards per rush against Smart and company.
This level of production starts in the front seven, an area where Georgia is deep, experienced, and freakishly athletic. It’s the same front seven that overwhelmed Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald last Saturday.
Prior to Mississippi State’s eventual 31-3 defeat to the Bulldogs, Fitzgerald had averaged 261 total yards and four touchdowns per game. Against Georgia, Fitzgerald gained 130 total yards and scored zero touchdowns while turning the ball over twice.
At the time, Fitzgerald’s performance came as a shocker, but in hindsight, it shouldn’t have. The Bulldogs are a carbon copy of an Alabama defense: They force you into third-and-long situations, leave no inch on the field uncovered, and are extremely disciplined.
The aforementioned qualities are on full display here. Mississippi State tries to throw Georgia’s defense off by running route combinations on the bottom right designed to tangle the Bulldog defenders, leaving a receiver wide open. Obviously, it doesn’t work, as Georgia sniffs out the routes, reacts accordingly, and delivers a sure-fire tackle to force a fourth down.
This level of defensive play won’t bode well for Tennessee’s offense, who’ll likely join Smart’s list of offensive casualties.
Often times, running back John Kelly will have nowhere to run, meaning his ability to force missed tackles has to reach stratospheric levels. Against Florida, Kelly forced an eye-popping 15 missed tackles. He might have to double that number against the Bulldogs, who always have multiple players lurking in the background, ready to strike.
But the issue won’t be Kelly — it’ll be the unit in front of him, and how they’ll protect junior quarterback Quinten Dormady.
Under pressure, Dormady is prone to making mistakes, especially when it comes to his footwork.
If you’re Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes, you can overcome poor footwork because of absurd arm talent. But Dormady doesn’t have jaw-dropping arm strength. He’ll likely face a ton of pressure, meaning that his footwork and mind will have to be sharper than ever, a tall task for a quarterback making only his fifth start and second overall in SEC play.
The Vols won’t crack Georgia’s defensive code with methodical drives. Instead, they’ll need to rely on players like Kelly or Marquez Callaway to make chunk plays. It’s a tall order for an offense that lacks a true identity and features a coaching staff who don’t always make logical decisions — particularly in the red zone — but the Tennessee-Georgia rivalry basks in unpredictability.
But even with the unpredictable nature of this game, here’s what is predictable — Georgia has one hell of a defense, and because of that, it’ll take another miracle — perhaps another Hail Mary — for Tennessee to pull this upset off.