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Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham: Will Kirby Smart’s Georgia defense remain elite after wave of attrition?

ATLANTA — Nick Saban once famously declared that good defense no longer beats good offense in college football. That’s why Saban hired a series of coordinators to modernize Alabama’s offense and recruited quarterbacks and skill players to make plays. Then Georgia’s great defense beat Alabama’s great offense for the 2021 national championship. Kirby Smart had finally triumphed over Saban by building a better defensive machine than his old boss.

The Saban/Smart partnership produced Alabama defenses that statistically were better than Georgia’s 2021 unit. But that was before the tempo/spread/run-pass-option formula took over college football. Stopping opponents is harder than ever now. Smart hacked the system in 2021 by winning it all with an elite defense and not-so-elite offense. Now the big question is whether Smart can pull it off again.

There’s little chance that Georgia’s defense will be as good this season as last. Regression from greatness is the norm. UGA’s specific circumstances make a defensive decline even more likely.

More than half of Georgia’s 2021 defensive starters are in the NFL now. Five were selected in the first round of the NFL draft in April: Travon Walker (No. 1 overall), Jordan Davis (13th), Quay Walker (22nd), Devonte Wyatt (28th) and Lewis Cine (32nd). Ex-UGA linebackers Nakobe Dean and Channing Tindall were drafted in the third round.

Georgia’s defensive coordinator, Dan Lanning, left to be the head coach at Oregon after the season. To replace Lanning, Smart put in place Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann as co-coordinators. Muschamp has a long track record of coordinating good defenses. Smart hired Schumann from Saban’s staff when he came to Georgia. Coaching shouldn’t be an issue for Georgia’s defense with those three calling the shots.

Smart’s stellar recruiting means there are plenty of talented young defensive players on UGA’s roster. Some of them played significant roles last season. Smart’s defense got great by building depth. Still, Smart never has had so many good defensive players leave all at once.

The Bulldogs were great on defense in 2021 after four ex-UGA players were selected within the first three rounds of that year’s NFL draft. In 2013, three Alabama defenders were picked within the first three rounds, and Smart still coordinated the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense. But the talent drain in those years was nothing like what happened after last season.

NFL talent evaluators don’t get every pick right, but they do well in the aggregate. Their collective wisdom is that a lot more high-level defenders left Georgia after the 2021 season than they did following 2020. Preventing slippage will be harder for Smart and his players this time. Schumann told reporters Tuesday in Athens that this year’s Bulldogs defenders aren’t worried about matching what last season’s group did.

Said Schumann: ”When you look at what we do here defensively, all these kids took pride in the defensive side of the ball when they came here. You go back to Georgia with (defensive coordinator) Erk Russell (they were) playing great defense. Guys who come here believe in themselves that they can go be as good as they want to be defensively. I believe collectively that we can do that.”

I believe it, too. I’ve always assumed Smart will field an elite defense no matter what. It’s a safe bet.

Georgia has finished No. 1 nationally for three consecutive years in ESPN analyst Bill Connelly’s defensive efficiency rankings (adjusted for tempo and opponent strength). Smart coordinated two top-ranked Alabama defenses, in 2014 and 2015, before leaving for Georgia. Since then, Alabama’s defense has been very good — ranked seventh, third, sixth and ninth in Connelly’s metric — but Georgia has supplanted Alabama as the program playing the best defense.

Smart is trying to accomplish with his defense what Saban has done with his offense: stay great after several of the best players go pro. Alabama had five players selected in the first round of the 2021 draft. The four skill players among that group rivaled those on NFL teams. That’s not hyperbole. Bama’s NFL rookies last season showed they’re already among the better NFL players at their positions.

Running back Najee Harris was voted to the Pro Bowl. The Patriots went to the playoffs with quarterback Mac Jones starting every game. He was ranked the 12th among NFL quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus, which also gave high grades to receivers Jaylen Waddle (19th) and DeVonta Smith (25th). Those players were instant hits in the NFL after starring for the greatest offense in modern college football.

LSU ended up holding that title for only one year. The 2019 Tigers scored 48.4 points per game with Joe Burrow throwing to Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson and with Clyde Edwards-Helaire running. The 2020 Crimson Tide scored 48.5 points per game with Jones throwing to Waddle and with Smith and Harris running. Then those players went pro and Alabama coordinator Steve Sarkisian left for the head coach job at Texas.

Alabama’s offense was due for a decline last season after all that attrition. It went from all-time great to ... sixth nationally in scoring (39.9 points per game). Quarterback Bryce Young won the Heisman Trophy. Running back Brian Robinson and wide receiver Jameson Williams were voted All-SEC first team. Williams was drafted in the first round and receiver John Metchie would have been if not for suffering a torn ACL (he still was picked No. 44 overall by Houston).

After assembling great defenses with Smart’s assistance, Saban has built an offensive juggernaut. Smart countered by fielding better defenses than Saban. That process paid off with a national championship at Saban’s expense. Now Smart will try to match Saban’s unrivaled ability to keep rolling after several great players depart.

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