Can defense still win a national championship?
No. 5 Georgia is going to test that theory in 2021. The Bulldogs suffocated No. 3 Clemson in a 10-3 vitctory in the Duke’s Mayo Classic on Saturday; a throwback performance in the age of pinball-machine offenses.
The Bulldogs sacked Clemson sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei seven times, and safety Christopher Smith’s 74-yard interception return for a touchdown proved the defining play in a night dominated by the Dawgs’ defense.
Georgia (1-0) claimed the first big chip of the 2021 College Football Playoff race; one that the program needed to start Kirby Smart’s sixth season. The Bulldogs entered the game with four consecutive losses to top-five opponents, and the forever-pressure on the program to end a national championship drought that extends back to 1980 was an endless topic of conversation this summer.
After all, Florida won the SEC East last season. Smart is 0-3 against Alabama, and despite off-the-charts recruiting, the notion that the Bulldogs took a baby step backward in 2020 had become the perception despite the return of a loaded roster.
Georgia changed that with a dominant defensive performance. The Tigers had -5 yards in the first quarter, and 10 rushing attempts for 1 yard at halftime. Clemson could not adjust to a nasty defensive front and a blitz-happy scheme from defensive coordinator Dan Lanning.
Smith’s game-changing interception came with 2:58 left in the first half. He stepped in front of an inside route by Clemson star receiver Justyn Ross and beat Uiagalelei to the end zone. That came after the Tigers had recovered a fumbled punt.
Georgia’s defense also covered quarterback JT Daniels lone big mistake; a third-quarter interception in Clemson territory. Back-to-back sacks pushed the Tigers out of field-goal range. When the Tigers finally found the red zone, Georgia forced a field goal.
With 4:52 remaining, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney opted to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the Georgia 45-yard line. The Bulldogs forced a hurried throw. That pressure was simply too much all night from a fast-and-furious defense.
Which prompts that question: Can that defense win the SEC?
LSU and Alabama won the national championship the last two seasons with record-setting offenses in the offense. Can Georgia reclaim the SEC East with this defense and counter what looks like another offensive explosion in Alabama down the line?
Daniels and an inexperienced group of receivers will need to get better, and Georgia will need to tap into its ground game, which closed the game in the final four minutes. Daniels finished 22 of 30 for 135 yards, and he hit 11 different receivers. Zamir White had 13 carries for 74 yards.
Clemson had an elite defense too, but it just wasn’t better than the Bulldogs in a heavyweight clash. Will Georgia be good enough to maintain that momentum while Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma continue to roll with their 40-points-per-game-offenses?
Given Georgia’s SEC West opponents are Arkansas and Auburn, that’s a question that can simmer in Athens until the Oct. 30 matchup against Florida. That is better than asking whether one-loss Georgia can survive that SEC minefield without another loss; something that hasn’t been done in the Smart era.
That national championship expectation is defensible now.
The Bulldogs will have the No. 2 ranking to prove it by Tuesday.