Final predictions for National Championship between Georgia and TCU
Caroline Darney and Michelle Martinelli give us their final thoughts on whether Georgia or TCU will be hoisting college football’s biggest trophy.
Sports Seriously, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — There was a time earlier in Kirby Smart’s tenure when it seemed uncertain whether his inclination toward defense would inhibit Georgia’s ability to rise to the very top of a sport that was in the midst of an offensive explosion.
It’s not that the Bulldogs were bad offensively, but they sometimes lacked the aggressiveness and dynamism in the passing game that Alabama and some of their peers had embraced. For coaches who love defense as much as Smart, it’s not always easy to buy into the idea that being elite only on that side of the ball isn’t good enough anymore.
But when Georgia plays for its second consecutive national title Monday night against TCU, Smart doesn’t just accept that the game might be a shootout — he practically expects it. And over his seven years as a head coach, the Bulldogs have evolved to the point where they’re built for it.
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“It’s important to me that we’re good on defense and we’re explosive on offense,” Smart said. “Do those things lend themselves to each other? They can. They do for us.”
As college football winds down another season, it’s difficult to find a matchup that would better represent the current state of the sport.
On one side, you’ve got TCU coached by Sonny Dykes, a disciple of the late Mike Leach and his Air Raid system whose offense has put up huge numbers at every stop in his career. On the other, you’ve got Smart, who helped put together some of the best defenses in college football history but now knows you can no longer grind a championship game opponent to dust like 2011 Alabama did in a 21-0 shutout of LSU. More to the point, that LSU team — which ranked 50th nationally in yards per play — probably wouldn’t have made it all the way to a championship game in the first place if the game was played like it is now.
College football is just different these days, and Georgia had no choice but to accept it.
“You feel like, ‘Okay, when is good defense going to be played in a semifinal or final for that matter?’” Smart said. “I mean, I don’t know. Football has evolved to where offenses are definitely ahead of defenses. It just seems to expose itself more towards the end of the year. I don’t know if anybody can put a fingerprint on it. But I think it is a thing. I just don’t know what causes it or allows it.”
This isn’t to suggest that Georgia has backed off its commitment to defense or sacrificed something in the way it operates. The Bulldogs are still the most physically imposing team in college football, ranking 18th this season in yards per play allowed (4.95) and fifth in scoring defense (14.8 points per game).
That’s quite impressive considering Georgia faced three of the top-10 offenses in college football (Tennessee, Oregon and Ohio State) and came into the year with a relatively inexperienced group after losing five first-round draft picks.
But in the CFP semifinal against Ohio State, Georgia didn’t have its best day. The Buckeyes hit big play after big play, exposing some holes in the secondary and racking up 467 yards of offense. In other words, college football at the highest level happened. And the game ultimately came down to whether Georgia’s offense had enough juice to erase a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit.
Of course, Georgia wanted to make more plays defensively in what became a 42-41 win. But in a way, it’s exactly what this team was built to do, even if it goes against Smart’s coaching DNA.
“I think Coach Smart has done a good job of seeing the trend where college football is going, what needs to happen if we’re going to continue to stay relevant and compete for championships,” said quarterback Stetson Bennett, who first arrived at Georgia in 2017 when they ran a much less dynamic system.
It might be a touch aggressive at this point to say that Georgia is now a program that should be recognized more for its offense than defense, but it’s not far off. After finishing as a top-10 offensive team just once in Smart’s first five years as head coach, the Bulldogs are going to finish among the top-10 scoring offenses both years and top-five of the all-important yards per play stat.
That would have been hard to envision as recently as 2019 and 2020 when Georgia looked like more of a plodding offense that really just wanted to run the ball and not put its quarterbacks in position to make big mistakes.
But there was a clear pivot, at least philosophically, when Smart hired Todd Monken to run his offense. Starting with his time under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State a decade ago, Monken built a reputation as one of the most creative playcallers in the sport, turning around Southern Miss before going to the NFL where he spent four seasons with Tampa Bay and Cleveland.
Though the 2020 season was a wash with COVID-19 impacting how much Monken could install, his impact has been clear: Not only does Georgia have talent all over the field, it can seem impossible at times to account for the simple volume of things the Bulldogs have in their playbook.
“The variety of what we’re going to see, all the shifts and the motions and variety of formations with the same personnel package on the field, it’s challenging,” TCU defensive coordinator Joe Gillespie said. “There’s nobody like Georgia.”
Smart said he did not have a eureka moment where he realized that Georgia’s offense needed to be more explosive, When he had Nick Chubb and Sony Michel in the backfield early in his tenure, it made more sense to build everything around running the ball.
Now, he has multiple tight ends in Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington (whose status is up in the air for Monday due to an injury) that can create huge matchup problems, a receiver room that goes four or five deep in elite speed and a running back like Kenny McIntosh, who is a huge weapon catching the ball out of the backfield.
“We’ve evolved to fit who we have on offense,” Smart said. “It’s not about how explosive you are. It’s about how much more explosive you are than the team you’re playing.
“I think there’s some teams that are explosive that maybe have sacrificed defensively. We’ll never do that because we have to play defense in our league. You’ll never get to important games if you don’t play good defense.”
But when you’re facing a team like TCU, which scored 41.1 points per game this year and won its own semifinal shootout 51-45 over Michigan, playing good defense in the classic sense may not be possible.
But there is no better testament to what a monster program Georgia has become than winning a title in 2021 with a historically good defense, then immediately pivoting to a team that can win a big game in the 40s or 50s. Even at Georgia, where defense is the foundation, it’s OK if the offense takes the reins sometimes.
“I like winning,” co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. “The fun is in winning and don’t ever remove yourself from that.”
Smart may not love the fact that his team is going to have to score a ton of points again to win a second straight national title. But if that’s what it takes — and recent trends in college football suggest it is — nobody is going to be better equipped.