There is no shortage of positions to discuss as spring practice opens, but the secondary seems to be pretty far down the list. Georgia has several starters returning in the defensive backfield, and it wasn’t a weakness in 2015. It’s a stat we heard and read up to and through the bowl game: Georgia has the nation’s #1 pass defense. That’s true even after giving up 281 passing yards in the bowl game: Georgia allowed only 156.5 yards per game through the air. Only five teams allowed fewer than 170 yards per game.
It’s a bit of a puzzle when you ask how Penn State came back throwing so well against that defense with a backup quarterback. Didn’t Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs throw for 312 yards? Didn’t Alabama’s Calvin Ridley have 5 catches for 120 yards against that secondary?
Surely the coaching changes had an effect in the bowl game: Pruitt was both defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. But Georgia’s schedule explains how they came out of the season allowing fewer passing yards than anyone: every passing offense Georgia faced was in the bottom half of the FBS.
There are 127 FBS teams. The “best”* passing offense Georgia faced was Alabama’s which rated 68 out of 127. The 74th-best Penn State passing offense was enough to be the second-best that Georgia faced. Five of Georgia’s thirteen opponents were 100 or lower. Teams like Auburn, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech just don’t throw often or well enough. It’s no surprise that run-heavy Tech and Georgia Southern were among the bottom five nationally in passing.
So you can be the nation’s “best”* pass defense either by defending the pass well or by the good fortune of facing a lot of teams that don’t throw all that much. In Georgia’s case, it was some of both. There were some good players: Sanders continues to be an interception machine. Parrish limits yards after the catch. Mauger has been one of Pruitt’s biggest turnaround stories.
(*) I put “best” in quotes because yards-per-game is not a very good metric for determining how well a team can pass or defend the pass. You’d rather give up fewer passing yards than not, but there are better metrics for efficiency.
The encouraging news is that Georgia did fairly well in the efficiency metrics too. Georgia allowed just 5.91 yards per pass attempt – not the best in the nation (that seems to be Michigan’s 5.41 YPA), but there were only about 11 defenses giving up fewer than 6 YPA. The pass defense was also top 10 according to the NCAA’s efficiency formula.
It’s understandable if, after all that, the outlook for the secondary takes a back seat to the larger questions elsewhere on the team. But with Smart and Tucker bringing a wealth of expertise from a defense that placed so much emphasis on the secondary, I’m interested to see how much more they can get out of Georgia’s returning players. There’s much to build on, but as we saw several times last season against opponents that were somewhat competent passing the ball, there are improvements to be made and opportunities for newcomers to make an impression on the new staff.