By now the conventional wisdom has more or less been inscribed in stone: Georgia played an easy schedule in 2011. Never mind that Jeff Sagarin ranks Georgia's slate as more challenging than South Carolina's and Arkansas's (and only marginally easier than Alabama's), the "easy schedule" asterisk automatically gets applied the minute you try to bring up something positive the Dawgs accomplished this season.
That's certainly applied to discussions of Georgia's defense in year two under Todd Grantham. In fairness, nobody's going to look at the 2011 versions of squads such as Florida or Tennessee and try to make the case that they're anywhere close to the prolific offenses that dumped bucketloads of points on the Bulldogs throughout the 1990s. But even in that context, what Georgia achieved on defense in 2011 is nothing short of astonishing, particularly coming on the heels of five years of consistently diminishing returns on that side of the ball. Here's how each of Georgia's 13 opponents performed against the Dawgs, compared to what they averaged on offense all year long.
|New Mexico St.||125.0||126||273.1||276||398.1||402|
In nearly every game, the Dawgs held the opposing offense below -- and in most cases substantially below -- their season average for yardage. And the few times they didn't, it was fairly easy to figure out why.
- South Carolina: The Dawgs did get gashed by running back Marcus Lattimore, whose 176 net rushing yards were only six less than the 2010 performance that keyed his coming-out party as a freshman. Of the 253 total rushing yards Georgia conceded to the Gamecocks, though, 68 came from Melvin Ingram's eye-popping touchdown run on South Carolina's fake punt -- which were thus attributable not to the defense but to special teams.
- Tennessee and Florida: Both teams bettered their season averages in passing yards when they played the Dawgs, but both teams attempted more passes against Georgia than they did in a typical game -- 20 percent more in Tennessee's case, a third more for John Brantley and the Gators -- because their rushing attacks were so completely ineffective. I can remember watching the Dawgs get savaged by the Volunteer and Gator running games throughout my college career in the late '90s; if you'd told me then that the Dawgs would one day hold both rivals to negative rushing yards in the same month, I'd have burned you for witchcraft.
So the only subpar performances that don't have an easy explanation are New Mexico State (in which everyone was too busy marveling at the Dawgs' 42-point second quarter to worry about a few big plays getting by the defense) and the 199 rushing yards put up by Vanderbilt. Everywhere else, the Georgia defense overachieved, even relative to the given opponent's typical performance in 2011. The result: Through 13 games, the Dawgs are ranked No. 3 in the nation in total defense -- their first top-five ranking in five years.
So while the "easy schedule" talk may still be applied to Georgia's turnaround 2011 campaign, no asterisks need to be applied to the significant leap forward the Dawgs made on defense. I heard from more than a few Georgia fans who said the same thing this past season: For the first time in a long time, they were getting excited rather than being overcome with creeping dread when it was time for Georgia's defense to take the field. The rest of the SEC's offenses, and those in the East Division in particular, won't be down forever, but Todd Grantham and his coaching staff appear to have fashioned a defense that's once again capable of fighting back.