Bill Connelly’s gone back through at least 1991 re-ranking teams using the S&P+ metric. It’s been a fun read. There are national stories to revisit, you can chart the rise and fall of SEC powers, and of course there’s the Georgia angle.
What was Georgia’s best team since 1991? It wasn’t 2007 (10th in the national S&P+ rankings) or 2012 (7th) or even the SEC championship teams of 2005 (7th) and 2002 (5th). Jim Donnan’s best team, 1997, came in 12th, a finish that would be eclipsed in five of Mark Richt’s first seven seasons.
Georgia’s best team, according to this metric, was the 2003 SEC East championship squad (*). That team finished in a three-way tie for the division title and advanced to the title game thanks to its high BCS ranking. The 2003 Dawgs finished with three losses with two coming against eventual national champion LSU. But that team still earned a #4 spot in the S&P+ rankings thanks in large part to the best Georgia defense since…you tell me.
Connelly helpfully provides the offense and defense S&P+ rankings along with his overall list, and it’s no surprise that the 2003 defense was the second-best in the nation behind only LSU. That was a nasty defense from the opening shutout at Clemson to the dominant second and third quarters in Knoxville to Odell Thurman chugging his way 99 yards down the sideline against Auburn. That defense was packed with playmakers and future pros from the defensive line to linebacker to the slobberknocking secondary.
The 2000 rankings also caught my eye. That was a strange year with a polarizing coach and quarterback, a star tailback in the doghouse, a devastating loss in the second game of the season, midseason quarterback turmoil, and a year-end collapse that led to a coaching change. Not the most stable of seasons.
The 2000 defense was talented (hence Donnan’s infamous “55 years” comment) but still very much symptomatic of the season’s instability. It was led by the third coordinator in three years after the disaster of 1999 (61th rated defense.) It relied on a converted wide receiver to start at safety. It was put in difficult spots by an offense that ranked only 41st.
But with the offense in turmoil and the head coach under fire, the 2000 defense was still tenth in the nation (again, according to S&P+.) Things slid on defense towards the end of the year as they slid across the board, but it all comes back to the Tennessee game. The Dawgs don’t snap the decade-long losing streak without, as Larry Munson called them that night, “the beautiful defense” making stop after stop.
The defense was led that year by Gary Gibbs, a former Oklahoma head coach who had been out of coaching for several seasons. Donnan had worked with Gibbs at Oklahoma on the great Sooner teams of the 1980s and brought in a known veteran coach with a more professional reputation to follow the (putting it kindly) contentious Kevin Ramsey experiment of 1999. Hiring Gibbs worked – in just one season Gibbs improved the defense from 61st to 10th in the S&P+ ranking.
Unfortunately Gibbs’ improvement on defense wasn’t enough to overcome the unraveling on the other side of the ball. It did lay a nice foundation for what was to come. The defense only slid to 17th in 2001 in Brian VanGorder’s first season as coordinator, but it really came into its own with defenses ranked #5, #2, and #3 from 2002-2004. Since those three seasons though, only the 2011 defense (S&P+ 8th) was more highly rated than Gibbs’ only showing in 2000. He’d go on to coach an SEC champion unit at LSU in 2001 before making the jump to the NFL.
(*) – As good as that 2003 team was, it was only the 47th best team of the 2000s. While Georgia was consistently good enough to have the 8th best program of the 2000s in average S&P+ percentile rating, there haven’t been any truly great Georgia teams on the level of 2005 Texas or 2001 Miami that we hold up as some of the best of the 2000s. We talk about a few of those teams – 2002, 2007, 2012 – being a couple of plays or breaks away from playing for larger things, but even those very good teams would have been punching above their weight.