HOOVER, Ala. — Georgia lost three games last season, and Jordan Jenkins isn’t sure which loss hurt the most. There was the heartbreaking 38–35 early season failure at South Carolina. There was the regular season-ending 30–24 overtime defeat to rival Georgia Tech. And in between there was the head-scratching setback against Florida on Nov. 1.
But Jenkins knows which tape he hated watching the most: his team’s performance in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. That’s when a Florida team that eventually fired head coach Will Muschamp blitzed the Bulldogs for 418 rushing yards in a 38–20 rout. Jenkins remembers feeling sick to his stomach in the film room the following Monday as he watched his defense struggle. “That,” he said, “was a tough thing to do.”
Georgia’s offense will draw plenty of discussion leading up this season, and for good reason. It returns one of the SEC’s best players, running back Nick Chubb, from a unit that led the league in scoring last season (41.3 points per game). The Bulldogs also must break in a new quarterback, still to be determined, and a new offensive coordinator, Brian Schottenheimer.
But to evaluate where Georgia was last year and where it will be this year, the offense doesn’t tell the important part of the story. It was the Bulldogs’ defense that spelled doom in each of their three losses. That’s why they know that side of the ball must get better for Georgia to return to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2012 and win its first conference title since ’05.
Georgia finished last season allowing 20.7 points per game, good for fifth in the SEC. But first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s unit gave up an average of 35.3 points in its three losses. That wasn’t a coincidence, either, as that trio of games shared a couple of common denominators.
First, the Bulldogs failed to stop offenses on third down. They finished the year ninth in the conference in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage (39.5), but that number was even worse in losing efforts. Florida, Georgia Tech and South Carolina converted 17 of their 39 third-down attempts, or 43.6%. The Yellow Jackets were especially effective in their win, converting 8 of 16 third downs.
One big reason for that was Georgia’s inability to stop the run. Florida didn’t even need to pass the ball to beat the Bulldogs; the Gators completed just three passes for 27 yards. Instead they ran it down Georgia’s throat, averaging 7.0 yards per carry. Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack reeled off 399 yards on the ground at 5.7 per carry. The result was a Bulldogs defense that got gassed after lengthy drives.
“We let teams beat us on third down and we couldn’t get off the field,” Jenkins said. “So we’re striving to stop that and be more stout against the run in those situations.”
Pruitt put more focus on both aspects of his defense during the off-season. During spring practices, Jenkins said, the coach routinely threw his defense into hypothetical third-down situations during practice and issued a directive: “Play it out, and be a man.” That emphasis on accountability has paid off, as has an extra off-season in Pruitt’s scheme.
“I think the big thing is just the familiarity with the verbiage in the new system coach Pruitt brought in,” head coach Mark Richt said. “And the expectations of how things are going to get done on a daily basis.”
Indeed, this defense might look a little different. A number of big names, like linebacker Ramik Wilson and cornerback Damian Swann, aren’t in Athens anymore. But the defense still returns six starters, including Jenkins and junior linebacker Leonard Floyd. Linebacker Lorenzo Carter impressed as a true freshman last year, and Richt said he wants Carter to develop into a better edge-rusher.
“We lost a good many players from a year ago in some key spots,” Richt said. “We’ve got to get some guys to come in and fill it. But I do expect the majority of guys will have a better feel in the sense of exactly what we want to get done and how to get it done, which will be helpful because there will be a bunch of guys new in this thing, too.”
Those new guys constitute Richt’s latest signing class, which ranked sixth nationally, according to Rivals.com. Five-star signee Trent Thompson was the No. 2 defensive tackle in his class and should earn a starting nod. Jenkins went out of his way Thursday to praise four-star linebacker De’Andre Walker’s development and noted that this class of newcomers is hungrier than usual.
“I know we say it every year, but these freshmen are not just working hard,” Jenkins said. “They’re getting into the playbook, they’re spending extra time in meeting rooms, they’re asking older guys questions. This freshman class is eager to learn. They’re not freshmen who have ego.”
As SEC Media Days closed on Thursday, reporters again voted Georgia as the preseason SEC East favorite. Such expectations are nothing new in Athens. In 14 seasons, Richt has averaged better than nine wins per year and won two SEC championships. But it has been a decade since his most recent conference title. That’s an eternity in football years, and Richt’s zero national championships continue to irk Georgia fans. Asked to address his critics, Richt smiled, “I didn’t know I got criticism.”
The Bulldogs’ prevailing narrative in Hoover was not unfamiliar: Is this the year Georgia finally gets over the hump? Richt’s program never hurts for talent, but the road in the SEC East—while still considerably lighter than the West—isn’t getting easier. Tennessee is on the rise, Florida just hired offensive guru Jim McElwain and Missouri has won the past two division titles. That’s why Richt must hope his defense steps up in 2015. Otherwise players like Jenkins could be looking back in anguish again.