Through the end of the off week, Georgia’s practice fields are the doctor’s office. Some players have physical ailments that need healing. Some of the position groups have production ailments that need to be cured before a top-10 showdown with Florida on Nov. 2.
Georgia skids into the season’s midway point at 6-1 with all of its goals still ahead, but a ugly 20-17 defeat to four-loss South Carolina makes for a large blemish. The external perception of this program has evolved over the years. Either it’s not enough when the record is good, or a loss means things are really, really bad.
This bye week is a period of self-evaluation. Head coach Kirby Smart uses the quality-control staff to see if schemes from other teams fit Georgia’s. He analyzes team strengths and weaknesses, offensively and defensively — red zone, run, pass, etc.
All of those efforts are to prepare for what Smart calls the “meat and potatoes” of Georgia’s schedule. Here are five takeaways of the team’s performance at the so-called intermission.
GEORGIA’S DEFENSE IS LEGITIMATE … FOR THE MOST PART
Statistically, Georgia’s defense is at an elite level. It allows an average of 10.6 points per game, hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown and is full of depth. All of that was proven against Kentucky. Well, at least we thought. Smart, who could’ve been simply taking some attention off of the offense, saw some areas for concern beyond the stat sheet.
“Extremely sloppy in the last game,” Smart said. “When you watch that tape, there’s a lot more concern. Tackling, gap fits -- if you went to a coach and said ‘watch this game,’ they would come in and say, ‘that is atrocious, tackling, fits, eye discipline, leverage, blockers.’ Walking around, whistling by the graveyard that everything is fine and we’re just OK.”
Statistics might be the ultimate factor, because not allowing points determines wins and losses. Nevertheless, one obvious need for defensive improvement is explosive plays. Mark Webb got burned against Murray State, Tennessee scored a 73-yard touchdown and Divaad Wilson got blown by against South Carolina.
Georgia has allowed five plays of 40 yards or more through seven games.
OFFENSE IS OK, BUT NEEDS TO BE MUCH BETTER
It was all fun and games for the Georgia offense through the first four games of the season.
The Bulldogs averaged 49 points per game over the first three weeks, then put up 23 in a victory over Notre Dame in a contest plagued by penalties and an inability to finish drives.
Then, the rumbling started with a slow start against Tennessee. A 20-17 double overtime home loss to South Carolina elevated criticism of offensive coordinator James Coley to a roar, one that was only slightly calmed with a 21-0 win over Kentucky last week.
Coley isn’t the only problem with the offense. Playcalling has seemed to be an issue at times. The Bulldogs have appeared very vanilla and predictable in its desire to run the ball, especially on early downs.
The highly-touted offensive line has struggled at times. The young group of receivers has experienced turbulence trying to get free of press coverage.
Overall, the offense needs to be more explosive, something Smart mentions constantly. The Bulldogs are 11th in the SEC with just 18 passing plays of over 20 yards, In the rushing game, Georgia is in the top five in the conference in rushing plays of 10, 20, 30 and 40 yards, further illustrating the need for the passing game to be opened up.
SO FAR, HAVOC RATE IS MOSTLY TALK
It was one of the biggest buzzwords of the offseason and fall camp. Smart and new defensive coordinator Dan Lanning wanted to increase the defense’s “havoc rate,” the percentage of plays where the Bulldogs forced negative plays on the opposing offense.
There have been flashes of havoc this season, to be sure. But through seven games, that mantra seems to have been a lot of talk for not much increased production.
Looking at the stats, Georgia is ninth in the conference in total sacks (16), 10th in tackles for loss (39), and seventh in passes broken up (30).
Turnovers are also an obvious part of the havoc equation. The Bulldogs are tied for seventh in the SEC with a plus-1 margin, but are tied for sixth in fumbles gained (four) and tied for 10th in interceptions (five).
Even those stats might be a tad misleading. For example, 10 of the team’s 16 sacks came in two games against Murray State and Arkansas State. That leaves the team with six in the other five games, a rate of 1.2 per game that would rank last in the conference over the entire season.
Even with the lack of havoc created, the defense has still fared well. The Bulldogs are fourth in the country in points allowed per game at 10.6 and, save for a handful of long pass plays, have done a good job of keeping opponents’ offenses in check both on the ground and through the air.
However, the best offense Georgia has faced by far has been Notre Dame’s, a game in which the team did have three tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions. In order to win out and make the College Football Playoff, the Bulldogs will have to replicate that performance and then some against the better offenses they will face down the line.
OFFENSIVE LINE STRONG IN PASS PROTECTION, UNDERWHELMING ELSEWHERE
Georgia entered its season with a conclusion seemingly foregone: it had the country’s best offensive line. The size and recruiting monikers of each player — arguably starters and second-stringers — backed that claim. The Bulldogs knew they had to prove it, and in some areas they’ve shown it. Others not so much.
The strength is the tackles. Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson are nearly surefire first-round NFL draft picks. Pass protection has been impeccable with this duo. Georgia has allowed four sacks this season, three of which came in the lone loss. That’s the third-best mark nationally.
“I can’t put a price tag on it,” Smart said. “When you line up with two tackles in this league who have played you’re very fortunate because tackles are hard to come by. Do the math; how many 6-foot-6 guys are walking around? It’s not a lot.”
Georgia’s weakness has been on the interior. Sophomore Trey Hill steps into a new role at starting center, Ben Cleveland, Cade Mays and Jamaree Salyer have rotated at right guard and Solomon Kindley suffered an injury (his replacement Justin Shaffer did, too). Health could be key in improvement, but the Bulldogs would like to shore up their run blocking — what Smart calls the team’s true strength — as its rushing offense ranks 14th nationally.
COACHING DECISIONS UP FOR DEBATE, BUT SMART PUBLICLY PLEASED
With the close calls and losses, there comes second-guessing of coaching decisions.
Even though it came in a win, some questioned Smart’s decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 against Notre Dame up 10 in the fourth quarter rather than go for it and run more time off the clock.
There was also the decision to not let Rodrigo Blankenship attempt a 60-yard field goal on the final play of regulation in a tie game against South Carolina. The ensuing Hail Mary failed, and Georgia lost in overtime.
In recent weeks, Smart has discussed the self-reflection that goes on with the coaching staff, mentioning everything from analytics to coaching philosophy. He has not, however, second-guessed any decisions he has made or criticized the playcalling of his first-year offensive coordinator.
While coaching decisions aren’t entirely to blame, there is a loss already on the schedule. Georgia’s ultimate goals are still attainable, but the margin for coaching error is now much smaller.