Georgia, Alabama, Auburn reminding SEC that defense matters

Georgia defenders David Marshall (51), Natrez Patrick (6), Dominick Sanders (24), Lorenzo Carter (7) and Davin Bellamy (17) gang tackle Tennessee running back John Kelly at the line of scrimmage for no gain in a win over Tennessee Sept. 30.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart isn’t happy that his Bulldogs finally allowed not one, but two touchdowns against a Southeastern Conference opponent.

 

In their third league game.

Smart calls that a wake-up call for his fourth-ranked Bulldogs.

“Our defense needed that,” Smart said. “They have been told by the media and everyone else that they’re the greatest thing ever. … We didn’t play to the standard that we’re supposed to. We can get better defensively and coach off of this performance to get their attention.”

The Bulldogs still are the nation’s second-stingiest defense in Smart’s second season , giving up an average of just 10 points a game this season. They haven’t allowed more than 19 in a win at Notre Dame that looks much more impressive as the Fighting Irish’s only loss.

Georgia, top-ranked Alabama and No. 10 Auburn are separating themselves in the SEC, even though the Crimson Tide’s offense looks methodical at times, the Bulldogs are playing a freshman quarterback and Tigers can have trouble moving the ball.

The one thing the trio does well week in and week out, is play defense. Their defensive squads are among the top six scoring units in the country, and that has them all poised to make a run at the College Football Playoffs.

“Defense wins championships and offense puts people in the seats,” said Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who runs his own defense.

That’s nothing new, in fact, it’s been repeated many times.

But these three teams have taken it to heart.

Alabama has allowed just 22 points in three SEC games. Georgia had a streak of six scoreless quarters before giving up its first touchdowns in league play to Vanderbilt , second set up by a turnover returned to the Georgia 1.

Georgia ranks third nationally allowing 242.7 yards per game followed by Alabama (258.8) in fifth with Auburn (287.5) 13th. Mississippi State and LSU are the only other SEC teams giving up less than 350 yards per game.

Auburn used Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offenses as first coordinator and then head coach to overcome the Tigers’ defensive shortcomings in winning the 2010 national championship with Cam Newton and to reach the 2013 title game. Auburn’s best scoring defense was ranked 48th in 2013 in those two seasons.

Now Auburn is holding opponents to 13 points per game — sixth-best in the nation.

“Over the history of our league, if you really look, the teams that have a chance to either win championships or have a chance to win championships, they’re all playing really good defense,” Malzahn said. “That’s really, I think, what separates our league from a lot of leagues is the elite defenses. When you play those elite defenses, it’s a challenge.”

Arkansas is an example of how costly a shoddy unit can be.

A defense ranked 123rd out of 128 FBS teams giving up an average of 6.75 yards per play led to ugly losses to Missouri and Virginia Tech last season. Switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 has resulted in only marginal improvement. Arkansas (2-3, 0-2 SEC) is giving up 31.4 points per game, better than only Mississippi (37.4) and Missouri (40).

Unrelenting Tide

Nick Saban coached Alabama to the SEC championship each of the last three years and four of five leaning on defense with Smart as defensive coordinator until leaving last year to coach his alma mater. This season, the Tide has remained one of the nation’s top defenses despite an array of injuries.

Alabama lost linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis for the season in the opener against Florida State with linebackers Rashaan Evans, Anfernee Jennings and Dylan Moses missing games with injuries. So have starting defensive end Da’Shawn Hand and backup cornerback Trevon Diggs.

Five-star defensive end recruit LaBryan Ray appeared headed for a redshirt season but had a sack against Texas A&M with Hand out with a sprained MCL.

Still, Saban wasn’t happy giving up 23 points to Colorado State or 19 to Texas A&M , and the standard is such that even Saban’s defenders agree they didn’t do enough.

“As far as execution, we could’ve done a lot better,” Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans said.

That might be a nitpicking, at least to LSU tight end Foster Moreau. Alabama has scored 59 and 66 points in separate games, while Georgia put up 41 in a shutout at Tennessee and 45 in the Bulldogs’ win at Vanderbilt. Auburn routed Mississippi State 49-10.

“When you’re scoring that much, it’s actually harder to hold teams like that,” Moreau said. “You just kind of drop back and don’t want to give up big plays. … When you see teams scoring that much and holding teams to that little, that’s impressive.”

And in an addendum to that old saying, these defenses are also putting people in the seats.

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