The last time UGA football defensive coordinator Dan Lanning held court with the media things were so bullish around the Bulldogs defense that he felt the need to mention that his guys weren’t anywhere near the level of the 1985 Chicago Bears.
A lot has transpired with Lanning’s defense since that August preseason Zoom session and the one he held Monday ahead of Friday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl with Cincinnati.
The Bulldogs still rank high in stats, but showings against Alabama and Florida were humbling and are part of the body of work of a team that dealt with key players injured in the second half of the season.
“I know ultimately offenses are ahead of the curve right now,” Lanning said. “You could say it's related to COVID, but I know within our walls we have a standard of defense here we take a lot of pride in. That doesn't change based on situation. We take a lot of pride in our mental agility and our ability to adapt.”
Georgia gave up 564 total yards against Alabama and 571 against Florida, two of the most explosive passing offenses in the nation.
Since the 44-28 drubbing by Florida, the Bulldogs have improved each of the last three games in points allowed (24, 16 and 14), total yards given up (358, 273, 200) and yards per play against (5.42, 4.20, 3.70).
How much of that is a product of the schedule – Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri – or strides this Bulldogs defense has made?
“I think we made a lot of improvements from a standpoint of communication, adapting,” Lanning said. “This has been the year of adapting. …We focused on technique, fundamentals more than anything. I think we've tackled really well this year. Our guys have embraced that throughout practice. That's probably the number one way to eliminate explosive plays is to be good tacklers, be really sound there.”
Cincinnati has the No. 18 rated offense in Bill Connelly’s ESPN SP+ rankings, which makes it the third best offense the Bulldogs will have gone up against this season.
The Bulldogs have had their worst games against his No. 1 and 3 offenses – Alabama and Florida. Auburn at No. 47 is the only other top 50 offense Georgia has faced.
Oh, the No. 1 defense in those rankings? It’s still Georgia despite the Alabama and Florida games.
“There's plenty of things we've gotten better on, communication,” safety Chris Smith said. “Tackling is one of our main focuses this week. We're going to try to go out and put on our best product for this week.”
Since the loss to the Gators, the offenses Georgia has faced are ranked No. 83 and lower.
“Cincinnati's offense is really good,” Lanning said. “They're a top-20 team on offense and defense. I think that's why they play really complementary football. For our guys, I think we've seen steady improvement in our communication and our ability to adapt based on somebody being out. I think we've done a better job throughout the season. Our coaches have done a really good job adapting. Our players have done a really good job adapting to who's in, who's not in, putting those pieces together.”
Georgia will be missing some important pieces due to opt outs against Cincinnati in cornerback Eric Stokes and inside linebacker Monty Rice but the Bulldogs can plug in players from top 3 recruiting classes the last several years.
“By far the most talented and deepest defense we’ve faced this season,” said Cincinnati offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who later referenced “bags under my eyes,” from working on a game plan for Georgia.
Rice had been bothered by a foot injury since the Alabama game but did not miss a game.
Georgia got back junior nose guard Jordan Davis for the last game against Missouri after missing time with an elbow injury.
Senior safety Richard LeCounte, a first-team All-SEC pick, is practicing and could return for the first time since the Kentucky game on Oct. 31 after sustaining injuries in a dirt bike accident.
“It all boils down to the health and safety of that young man,” coach Kirby Smart said. “If he's capable of playing winning football, he'll go out there and play. He's never been shy about it. He wants to play. … He's pushing really hard, he's taking a lot of reps, a lot of reps for the twos. He's working hard to get out there and play. It's going to be conditioning, it's going to be physicality, it's going to be how comfortable he is.”
The Bearcats offense is led by junior quarterback Desmond Ridder, the ACC’s offensive player of the year and championship game most outstanding player.
He’s thrown for 2,090 yards and rushed for 609 more.
His 12 rushing touchdowns are the most this year by an FBS quarterback.
“You can definitely tell by the film that he's a play-maker,” Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “He runs that whole offense. The whole offense runs through him. Basically he's the heartbeat of the offense.”
Cincinnati wide receiver Michael Young who is tied for the team lead with 25 catches for 273 yards and 3 touchdowns, is studying Georgia for the third time. The Notre Dame graduate transfer had a catch in the Bulldogs’ win in South Bend in 2017 but missed last year’s rematch in Athens because he was sidelined by injury.
“I just know the looks. I just know the players,” he said. “I just know kind of their techniques, things of that nature.”
The Bearcats have four wideouts with 14 or more catches including Jayshon Jackson (22 for 309 and a TD), Tre Tucker (18 for 236 and 3) and Alec Pierce (14 for 287 and 2).
“When you look across the board, the complete group of wideouts probably right there, outside of Alabama, is as good as we've faced,” Smart said.
Georgia’s 4.87 yards per play allowed still leads the SEC.
“We try to look at it in the context of the entire season,” Smart said. “Although we won't have the exact same defense out there for this one that we had most of the season, we'll have some of the same guys. To be honest, we didn't have the whole defense out there after Kentucky the rest of the year in terms of complete and healthy. … Look, you're not going to play in football in general, but in college football anymore, and not give up plays. The risk you have to take to give up negative plays gives you an opportunity to give up explosive plays.”
Georgia is 44th in the nation in plays given up of 30 or more yards with 15 compared to No. 2 in 2019 with 11 (albeit not against an SEC-only schedule), according to CFBstats.com.
“You have to adapt and change as the offenses adapt and change,” Lanning said.
The Bulldogs are tied for 34th in the nation in sacks with 24 and 71st in tackles for loss with 49 after ranking 46th and 60th last season.
“One of the key ingredients is can you give people lost yardage plays, tackles for loss, get sacks?” Smart said. “We've done that at a higher clip than we have in the past. We have to improve in not giving up as many explosives, then you have a recipe for what you want.”