CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Kirby Smart counter-programming revolution is upon us. Football is all about offense these days, passing and points and pace, but the Georgia coach is going to see how far his sledgehammer defense can carry the team.
You want shootouts? Smart wants shutouts. And he nearly got one Saturday night, holding No. 3-ranked Clemson to its fewest points in 14 years to win a 10–3 trench brawl of a season opener. There were zero offensive touchdowns, 13 punts and eight sacks. Georgia won while having exactly two plays longer than 20 yards.
The old saying about defense winning championships had become obsolete in college football. The past three national champions have averaged 44.3 points (Clemson 2018), 48.4 points (LSU 2019) and 48.5 points per game (Alabama 2020). But maybe Kirby can go old school—like, hearkening back to the 1980 Georgia team that won the school’s last national title—and reverse the overwhelming trend line.
“We have a goal for our defense: allow no explosive plays and hold teams under 15 points,” Smart said. “People say, ‘You’re crazy, you can’t do that in this day and age.’ Well, why can’t we?”
Maybe it can still be done. Maybe you can still win it all this way, even if it makes the fans’ eyes bleed. But it seems unlikely that defending champion Alabama watched this game and came away nervous—not after scoring 44 in its opener against Miami, running its streak of consecutive regular-season games with more than 40 points to 11. Ohio State, which put 45 on the board against Minnesota and had four scoring plays longer than 55 yards, probably was unfazed as well.
But from a rankings perspective, nobody scored a bigger Week One win than the Bulldogs, and nobody else may have as clean a path to 12–0. Per the preseason Top 25, Georgia has just one remaining regular-season game against a ranked opponent: Florida in Jacksonville on Oct. 30.
Maybe someone else materializes as a significant threat, but expect the Bulldogs to be solidly favored every game the rest of the way. Georgia could slog its way to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference championship game with an offense that simply avoids screwing up. It might not be the most thrilling thing to behold, but when the program strength is a fast and physical defense, you roll with it.
“If the defense does that every game, we don’t have to score much more than four points,” said quarterback JT Daniels. “But realistically … we have to be more explosive.”
The expectation was that this Georgia team could do that. The belief (hope?) among Georgia fans was that Smart had the QB to cut loose in Daniels, the USC transfer who came on late last season, and that the weapons were available on the perimeter. But for now, Daniels is dealing with a pretty limited receiving deck due to injuries and absences and inexperience.
Daniels needs some wideouts who can turn short routes into big gains or make difficult catches in one-on-one matchups. His top target Saturday night was a freshman tight end (Brock Bowers), whose long gain was 13 yards. Most of his wideout completions went to freshmen and sophomores. Leading returning receiver Kearis Jackson only played on special teams in this game.
Clemson kept Georgia from stretching the field by playing an unexpectedly soft shell coverage—a departure from the Brent Venables norm—that forced Daniels into Captain Checkdown mode. But it remains to be seen whether the Bulldogs have the personnel to burn a defense that plays more aggressively against them.
“We should be able to move the ball and score on everybody,” Daniels said. But even after throwing for just 135 yards—his second-lowest total in 17 career college games—Daniels walked out of Charlotte happy.
“Do I have a half-and-half feeling?” He said in response to a question about the defensive domination and offensive flailing. “Hell no. We just beat Clemson.”
The Tigers have some issues of their own to deal with in the coming weeks, starting with an offensive line that was a weakness last season and seemed no better Saturday—despite coach Dabo Swinney pumping them up during preseason and potentially his best yet. Clemson was overwhelmed by Georgia’s blitzes and opened few holes for its running game, which netted two yards on the night. For a program that has become extremely physical under Swinney, the offensive line couldn’t hold up in a toughman contest.
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei might have inflated expectations beyond what was realistic with his two starts last season in place of Trevor Lawrence. He was very good against both Boston College and Notre Dame, but looked much more like an inexperienced starter against Georgia’s withering assault. Uiagalelei was rattled into holding the ball too long and taking sacks, and Swinney said it took him more than two quarters to calm down and play well.
“He’s a great player,” Swinney said of his QB. “I promise you, that guy will respond.”
What remains to be seen is whether Uiagalelei can provide a legitimate running threat. He was a tentative runner last year, and against Georgia offensive coordinator Tony Elliott only appeared to call three designed QB runs. Uiagelelei doesn’t seem to have the physical running style of Lawrence, or the stride.
His arm is unquestioned, but Uiagalelei also served up an interception that became the only touchdown of the night. Georgia ran a blitz at him and he threw a slant to Justyn Ross, which safety Christopher Smith jumped for the pick and returned for six.
Smith said defensive coordinator Dan Lanning’s call was designed to bait Uiagalelei into that throw, and he jumped the route. But Swinney blamed Ross for not running it properly. “He’s supposed to sit down (in the open space),” Swinney said. “Anytime a defender beats the receiver (to the spot), that’s on the receiver.”
Ross, Clemson’s best wideout and returning star who didn’t play last year after a neck injury, went from featured target to bit player after that play. Uiagalelei instead began throwing to Joseph Ngata, who wound up with a career-high 110 receiving yards.
Despite being held to the fewest points of the Swinney Era, the coach is probably correct in asserting that this defeat in a matchup of top-five teams doesn’t cost Clemson much. “All our goals are still in front of us,” Swinney said.
The one thing that could alter that is if the Atlantic Coast Conference comes up really weak, which could be the case after a dud-filled debut weekend. All three ranked ACC teams lost: Clemson, Miami (big) and North Carolina. Then there were upset losses by Duke and Georgia Tech. (Florida State and Louisville are yet to play but both are underdogs to Notre Dame and Mississippi, respectively.) If Clemson goes 12–1 against a conference that cannot produce a strong competitor, the College Football Playoff resume will be subject to close scrutiny.
It’s quite likely that both these defenses made the opposing offenses look a lot worse than they really are, or will be. This much seems sure: Georgia has a schedule built for success, and an elite D that is capable of winning a lot of low-scoring games. The sport has been tilting toward points in abundance for years, but Kirby Smart may counter-program his way to a special season between the hedges.
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