UGA football: Georgia’s defense has come a long way in 10 years

Through the 2010s, the UGA football defense went from one of the worst in the SEC to perhaps the best in the nation.

Looking at the UGA football defense today, it’s hard to believe how embarrassingly bad the group was less than 10 years ago.

Georgia’s 2019 defense was one of, if not the best defense in school history. Only one team scored over 20 points against the group. Georgia allowed a measly 74.9 rushing yards per game and a paltry 201.1 passing yards per game, all while averaging a takeaway each game. Georgia’s defense carried it to the SEC Championship Game, a Sugar Bowl appearance and a 12-2 record.

Just seven years ago, Georgia’s defense wasn’t carrying anything, despite then defensive coordinator calling his group the “backbone” of the team. Grantham coached Georgia’s defense from 2010-to-2013. Surprisingly, he left Athens on his own accord.

Georgia with Todd Grantham

  • 54 Games
  • Allowed 30+ points 21 times
  • Allowed 20+ points 32 times
  • Allowed 200-plus passing yards 23 times
  • Allowed 400-plus total yards 16 times

If not for the offense led by coordinator Mike Bobo and quarterback Aaron Murray, UGA would have fired Mark Richt much sooner than 2015. Georgia managed to win two SEC East Championships with Grantham. In both SEC Championship Game losses, Grantham’s unit allowed a combined 67 points.

The lowlights during this forgettable era were:

  • Allowing 29 points in a 2010 loss to Colorado
  • Giving up a combined 59 points to Boise State and South Carolina early in the 2010 season.
  • Letting a five-win Tennessee team score 44 points in Athens in 2012
  • Giving up a combined 66 points to Missouri and Vanderbilt in 2013

But the lowest point of this era, and perhaps the lowest Georgia’s defense had ever been, was the 2013 Auburn game. Georgia fell behind 27-7 in the first half and after the offense came back in the second half to snag a 38-37 lead, the defense gave up the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare.”

Georgia’s defense began improving almost as soon as Grantham left. Mark Richt may have looked bad by not firing Grantham, but he looked like a genius by luring Jeremy Pruitt away from Florida State weeks after the Seminoles won the national title. That’s not to say the Pruitt-led defenses were legendary by any means, but the difference from the Grantham era was night and day.

Most of all, Pruitt brought accountability to Georgia’s defense. While Grantham called his atrocious units the “backbone” of the team, Pruitt stole the blame from Bobo following a loss to South Carolina in 2014. Pruitt praised Georgia’s offense for scoring 35 that day and was harsh on his defense for allowing 38 points.

That game set the tone for the rest of the Pruitt era on the field. Georgia’s defense improved until it was the unit carrying the team in the 2015 season. Off the field, Pruitt may have been chaotic and his antics may have ultimately exposed Richt’s biggest flaws, but his contributions to Georgia’s defense in the middle of the 2010s can’t be debated.

In 2016 new head coach Kirby Smart and defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker picked up where Pruitt left off. Smart and Tucker’s defense had some rocky performances in 2016, notably a 45-14 loss to Ole Miss, but the unit grew up and bought in quickly.

Georgia with Kirby Smart

  • 56 games
  • Allowed 30-plus points seven times
  • Allowed 20-plus points 21 times
  • Allowed 400-plus total yards eight times

By November 2016, Georgia’s defense had become a dominant unit. For the first time since 2005 probably, Georgia’s defense was fun to watch again. In a 13-7 win over Auburn, Georgia didn’t allow a first down in the entire second half and even had a defensive touchdown.

The Bulldogs were even better on defense in 2017. Georgia only allowed two 400-yard games and never let an opponent pass for over 300 yards. The performances against Notre Dame, Tennessee and Florida were legendary. The defense didn’t falter in Jake Fromm’s first start, on the road in Notre Dame. They gave Tennessee their most embarrassing home loss in decades and delivered an oh-so-satisfying blowout win in Jacksonville.

2018 was much of the same despite losing numerous starters, but 2019 provided the new gold standard for the defense at Georgia. Mel Tucker leaving to become head coach at Colorado didn’t affect the Bulldogs. Dan Lanning took over and the defense didn’t skip a beat. Only one team scored more than 20 points on the Bulldog defense. Georgia’s 274.2 points per game were the fourth-best in the nation, the 12.5 points per game were second-best.

Next: 10 greatest quarterbacks in UGA football history

There is no comparison between Georgia’s defense since 2015 and the defense before 2015. The defenses of the early 2010s had some huge stars (Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Brandon Boykin), but they were heavily flawed units. Georgia’s more recent defenses don’t have as many standout stars, but they play perfectly as a team. With very few players leaving, and many more maturing into more prominent roles, Georgia’s defense will only improve this coming season.

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