We were "young bad" most of the time – particularly when we went up against the starting five, which was our assignment most practices. That group finished second in the conference the season before, and they beat our brains in constantly during practice.
Thankfully we didn't actually have to play for a few more years. Georgia's defense doesn't have the same luxury right now.
The Bulldogs are, statistically speaking, the worst defense in Georgia history. They are also the youngest – and it's not close. According to Georgia's sports information department numbers so far this season sophomores or freshmen have started 52% of the time… more than any other year since 1986 the sports information department has tracked besides one.
Most Georgia fans don't look back kindly on 1990. Georgia wasn't having a good year… not in the least. Georgia Tech was on the way to sort-of winning the national title and Georgia was on the way to a four-win season, which was the lowest win total since 1963.
That defense allowed 26.6 points per game, which still stands as the most points allowed in Georgia football history. It also still stands as the youngest defense in school history with 55% of the starters being sophomores or younger.
That's probably why it should come as no surprise that Georgia is struggling to keep foes out of the end zone this year. After all of the 77 (11 starters x 7 games = 77) possible starting positions available thus far this season 40 of them have been by players who are sophomores or younger. That means that seven games into this season, Georgia has already started more freshmen or sophomores (40 starts) than it started that group in entire seasons 23 of the last 27 years. Only four years (2007, 1994, 1990 and 1989) had freshmen and sophomores taking up 40 or more starts for the year.
The Bulldogs are currently allowing 33.3 points per game – that's not very good - and there is a direct correlation between youth on defense and scoring averages going higher.
With all of that said a few questions and possible answers:
Isn't this Todd Grantham's fault?
Yes and no. The first three years of Grantham's time at Georgia saw consistent improvement in ppg averages. It also saw the Bulldogs within yards of an SEC championship.
Not so surprisingly, Grantham's first three defenses improved as they got older. In other words they were like wine… better with age. In 2010, the defense allowed 22.1 ppg (a 4-point improvement from the year before) with 69% of the starters as junior or seniors. In 2011, the defense allowed 20.6 ppg with 76% of the starters as junior or seniors. Last year the defense allowed 19.6 ppg (the first time since 2006 that the defense was under a 20-ppg average) with 85% of the starters as junior or seniors.
In three years time, Gratham's defensive coaching had shaved nearly a touchdown a game off of the scoreboard. He needs to get credit for that – not just blame for the scoring frenzy that's been happening at Georgia (and around the SEC) this year.
Fine Dean, so why is Georgia so bad on defense this year?
Because the defense is loaded with freshmen and sophomores – specifically in the secondary.
Why are so many freshmen and sophomores starting on Georgia's defense? You may or may not remember Nick Marshall. He's the starting quarterback at Auburn right now. What does Marshall have to do with Georgia's problems on defense?
He should be a staring cornerback at Georgia right now – not the starting quarterback at Auburn. But things happen and players get kicked off of teams. Three secondary members from the class of 2011 (Grantham's first full recruiting class) were kicked out of school by Mark Richt after signing day 2012 – not great timing in terms of signing players to replace them in the 2012 class, but no one noticed because the 2012 secondary was stacked. It ended the year #2 in the SEC in pass defense… pretty good.
So there is a bit of a gap. Junior college players in the secondary have not yet proven that they can fill in the gap for Georgia's freshmen as they grow (History shows that JUCO players are very, very hit and miss). That was the hope in Athens – get some players in there from the junior colleges to build a bridge to when the younger players can start to take over for good. That was the hope – that didn't happen.
Georgia hasn't gone from #2 in the SEC in pass defense to #11 in one year because Scott Lakatos or Todd Grantham forgot what they are doing… they've fallen because of youth and inexperience (and they've dealt with some quality quarterbacks in several of their first seven games).
Can they improve enough by the end of the year to not be the worst ppg defense in Georgia history?
Perhaps, but its going to be a challenge. The damage is really already done. In order to get below 1990's 26.6 ppg mark this team is going to have to get a lot better on defense quick. If Georgia plays 13 games this season it can only allow 346 total points in the season. The Bulldogs have already allowed 233. That means Georgia can only allow 18.8 ppg (or 113 total points) the rest of the way.
The good news is that several of the teams Georgia is yet to play are struggling on offense. The Gators are at 21.1 ppg; App State is at 15.1 ppg; Auburn is at 35.9 ppg; Kentucky is averaging 20.3 ppg; at Georgia Tech is at 30 ppg against teams not named Elon.
That's 122 points added up between those teams. Georgia has held most of the teams, believe it or not, in the first seven games to just below their scoring average. So the defense will actually have to improve in order to miss out on being the worst in school history in terms of scoring allowed.
Has the defense gotten better as the season has gone on?
Actually, yes. The team has lost the last two weeks – so you wouldn't know it – but the defense, in fact, is better – if you are talking about statistics (and what you see on the field in front of you, which is the real test).
The run defense has been pretty steady all season – the Bulldogs are ranked #4 in rushing defense all season long. They allowed 197 yards rushing against Clemson and 226 against South Carolina, but only Tennessee (189) had a good day on the ground vs. Georgia since those two games.
Because the focus of the final games on Georgia's schedule are with teams who like to run the ball (Auburn, Tech and the Gators), the Bulldogs will either defend better, or have their top defensive strength challenged.
Also, it can't be surprising that Georgia's run defense is the strength of that side of the ball. After all, the starters in the front seven are more likely to be a senior (Garrison Smith) and juniors (Ray Drew, Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera) than in the secondary, which has only one junior (Damien Swann) playing back there.
But the secondary is the group that's gotten better – as they should as the season moves on. After allowing 277 yards a game passing in the first four games of the season (LSU was the high with 372), Georgia has recovered to allow only 222 yards per game passing in the last three. The secondary allowed nine touchdowns the first four games of the year and had only one interception. They've allowed only three touchdowns by air the last three games and have picked off two passes (one going for a touchdown). Flipping that ratio hasn't translated into wins (amazingly), but it shouldn't be ignored, either.
Yardage has gone down progressively over the season (Week 1 average – 467; Week 2 – 461; Week 3 – 389; Week 4 – 404; Week 5 – 404; Week 6 – 399; Week 7 – 390) to where it is at the lowest it has been all year. Likewise scoring has fallen, but not at the same rate as yards (Week 1 average – 38; Week 2 – 34; Week 3 – 30; Week 4 – 33; Week 5 – 32; Week 6 – 34; Week 7 – 33).
In short – it can't really be a surprise that Georgia has struggled on defense. They should. They are historically bad in terms of scoring defense… they are also historically young. At no time in Georgia's football history has a defense with 43% or more of the defense being freshman and sophomores had what anyone would describe as a "good" year defensively.
The good news – if anyone wants to hear it – is that next season Georgia won't be so young on defense. Instead of playing with freshmen and sophomores 52% of the time, the defense will be playing with juniors and seniors 64% of the time (which is still a touch younger than the average Georgia defense over the last 25 years) and that should make for a huge jump on the defensive side of the ball – if you believe history that is.