ATHENS, Ga. — It might be one of the most trite axioms in sports, but “next man up” has taken on a literal meaning for No. 3 Georgia‘s defense this season.
A year ago, a historically talented defense led the Bulldogs to their first national championship in 41 years. Five defensive starters — end Travon Walker, tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, linebacker Quay Walker and safety Lewis Cine — were selected in the first round of the NFL draft, the most from any school in the common era of the draft since 1967.
Three other Georgia defenders — linebackers Nakobe Dean and Channing Tindall and cornerback Derion Kendrick — also were drafted, leaving the Bulldogs with only three returning defensive starters going into the 2022 season.
The attrition has gotten worse since then. When the Bulldogs take on No. 1 Tennessee at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, only two players who started for Georgia’s defense in its 33-18 victory against Alabama in the CFP National Championship game are expected to be on the field — cornerback Kelee Ringo and safety Christopher Smith.
The Bulldogs lost senior outside linebacker Nolan Smith to a season-ending pectoral muscle injury this week; safety William Poole left the team in September for personal reasons.
Nonetheless, the Georgia defense that takes the field against the high-flying Volunteers in a game that might decide the SEC East title leads the conference in run defense (85.4 yards) and total defense (262.5 yards) and is second against the pass (177.1 yards).
Not bad for a defense that also lost coordinator Dan Lanning, who left to become Oregon‘s head coach. Linebackers coach Glenn Schumann and special teams coordinator Will Muschamp, a former head coach at Florida and South Carolina, were promoted to co-defensive coordinators.
“It is just the standard,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Just because you lose good players does not mean you are not going to be good next year. Maybe that is an expectation that some teams have, but that is not the expectation of any team I have ever been a part of. The expectation is that you are going to be good because you recruit good players and because you coach hard.”
Few FBS coaches have recruited defensive players as well as Smart, a former Georgia defensive back and Alabama defensive coordinator. Seven of the Bulldogs’ anticipated defensive starters for Saturday’s game were ranked in the ESPN 300 as high school seniors.
Linebacker Smael Mondon Jr. and safety Malaki Starks were ranked the No. 1 athletes in their respective classes in 2021 and 2022. Ringo was the No. 1 cornerback in the 2020 class. Jalen Carter was the No. 12 prospect overall and No. 2 defensive tackle in 2020.
“They are just big, smooth and efficient,” said Samford coach Chris Hatcher, whose team lost 33-0 at Georgia on Sept. 30. “If we thought we had a crease on them, I’d look up and we’d gained a yard and it’s second-and-9. Knowing Kirby and Will because I worked with them, they’re relentless recruiters. Some of those guys played last season in the national championship year because they had some blowout wins. Those backups got a lot of reps and they know the expectation there. I just have not seen that much of a drop-off from last year to this year.”
Through eight games, Georgia’s defense stacks up well against last year’s unit, at least statistically. The Bulldogs are second in the FBS in scoring defense, behind only Illinois. Georgia allowed 10.2 points per game in 2021; it is giving up 10.5 per game this season. Opponents gained 269 yards of offense per game last season; they’re totaling 263 this season.
Georgia’s defense has been even better on third down. Last season, opponents converted 35% of third downs; they’re moving the chains only 29% of the time this season.
“It all comes down to guys that are out there being coachable,” Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker said. “As you can see, they have some great coaches behind them, and they play extremely hard. That’s something that you can’t teach. The effort and attitude and toughness that they bring to the game is immaculate, and that’s what SEC football is about. This is the top brand of football.”
Georgia hasn’t played an offense as explosive as Tennessee’s this season. It is just the second time the Bulldogs will face an offense that is ranked in the top 50 in the FBS in scoring offense, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information. Oregon, which is fifth in the country with 42.4 points per game, could manage only a field goal in a 49-3 loss to the Bulldogs in the Sept. 3 opener.
The Volunteers lead the FBS in scoring (49.4 points) and total offense (553 yards per game) and are second in passing (353.4 yards). Hooker is a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, completing 71.2% of his passes for 2,338 yards with 21 touchdowns and one interception. Receiver Jalin Hyatt has 45 catches for 907 yards with 14 touchdowns, including a school-record five TDs in a 52-49 victory against Alabama on Oct. 15.
As good as Georgia’s defense was last season, the Volunteers still tested it in the Bulldogs’ 41-17 victory at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee had 387 yards of offense, including 332 passing. Cedric Tillman had 10 catches for 200 yards with one score.
With a second offseason in coach Josh Heupel’s fast-break attack, the Volunteers have been even better this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it will be the first game featuring an offense averaging 49 points or more against a defense allowing 11 or fewer in November or later since 1996.
The Volunteers aren’t one-dimensional, either. They’re 25th in the FBS in rushing, with nearly 200 yards per game. Hooker is the team’s third-leading rusher with 338 yards and four scores.
“Tennessee is not necessarily a pass-happy offense,” Smart said. “They run the ball really well. I think you could say that statistically they have explosive passes. They are a running team that chunks it deep. They do a really good job with explosive pass plays. They commit to the run. There is a toughness there. Their backs run really tough.”
One area Georgia’s defense has lagged behind last season’s unit is sack production. The Bulldogs have generated only 10 sacks and 39 tackles for loss, which ranks outside the top 100 in the FBS.
“You wouldn’t call them vanilla by any stretch,” Tennessee quarterbacks coach Joey Halzle said. “They’re a really good defense, we all know that. They’ve got guys that can rush the passer, they’ve got blitzers, they’ve got cover guys. You don’t see a lot of flaws in their defense, especially looking at them from a personnel standpoint. They’re well coached, they’re in position, you see them flying to the football. That’s why you don’t see them giving up big plays, because they have a bunch of guys around the ball.
“You see guys that are well coached with a lot of eye discipline. It’s not like they don’t get home or they don’t force it. They’re making tackles, they’re keeping everything in front of them, and they’re making guys snap it again. Then they’re doing a good job of getting off the field on third down.”
Losing Smith, who led the team with three sacks, seven tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hurries, won’t make pressuring Hooker any easier. Sophomore Chaz Chambliss and freshman Marvin Jones Jr. will have to play more in his absence.
“Those guys have to play,” Smart said. “They practice every day just like Nolan does. They have to have an opportunity to go play. This is the next man up.”