When Kirby Smart came to Athens as Georgia’s new head coach in 2016, he lured acclaimed offensive line coach Sam Pittman away from Bret Bielema’s Arkansas. It was devastating for a Razorbacks run game that fell from fifth in Rushing S&P+ in 2015 to 74th the next fall. And it felt like a no-brainer for UGA, too. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel running behind a Pittman line? Come on.
Chubb and Michel had their moments, but certain opponents stumped the 2016 Dawg run game. Against Florida, Chubb and Michel combined for 22 yards on 12 carries, and it wasn’t just the blue-chip Gators. They rushed 27 times for 68 yards in a loss to Vanderbilt and 25 times for 83 yards in a discouraging near-loss to Nicholls State.
Georgia fell from 22nd to 82nd in Rushing S&P+ in 2016. It was jarring.
“You say, ‘What do you want to change?’ People think change is putting a wideout over there and a tight end over here. Hell, I want to block better.”
In 2017, Georgia blocked better.
The Dawgs are seventh in Rushing S&P+. They are not without their glitches — they were merely a good 35th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 44th in power success rate (success in short-yardage situations). And we saw some glitches even in the Rose Bowl: Only four of Nick Chubb’s 14 carries gained 5 or more yards, and his last seven gained a combined 6.
Sure, he also had rushes of 25, 45, and 50 yards. He’s really good. Plus, counterpart Sony Michel (11 carries for 181 yards and four catches for 41) was devastating.
But this is not yet the most consistent run game in the world. And against Alabama, a defense that forces you to play your most consistent ball even when it isn’t at full strength, that could be an issue.
When a play works for Georgia, though, it works. And you can usually tell it’s worked immediately.
It’s not just the blocking. As an anonymous coach told CBS’ Barton Simmons this week, ”[Georgia] schemes to get their guys the ball. [Alabama] just has guys.”
Chaney has long been one of my favorite coordinators in college football. I wrote this back in 2015, when he was at Pitt:
He was Joe Tiller’s coordinator during Purdue’s renaissance, and he spent three years as an NFL assistant. He helped to blur the lines between pro-style and spread in four years as Tennessee’s O.C., and with an experienced line and two solid receivers, his last Tennessee offense ranked 10th in Off. S&P+.
At Arkansas, after some first-year struggles, he was pulling the strings for a devastating Hog offense that ranked 15th in Off. S&P+.
Chaney does what his personnel dictates. He has succeeded with average quarterbacks (he had a top-30 offense with Jonathan Crompton and a top-15 offense with Brandon Allen), he runs the ball when he’s got good backs, and he gets receivers open, even in power sets.
Certain guys have a system, but Chaney is a tinkerer. He assesses what he’s got and uses it. When you’re not sure what you’ve got, that can result in endless tinkering and a lack of identity; we saw that in 2016.
With better blocking, however, everything’s fallen into place.
And if you make a single mistake against this Georgia offense, you’re toast. Case in point: the Rose Bowl.
Michel’s first touchdown run was the combination of great blocking on one side and a tiny dose of misdirection that wrong-footed two defenders:
Mecole Hardman goes in motion, which distracts two OU defenders. Without the motion, this is well-blocked enough to gain 4 or 5 yards. If the motion distracts just the defender who should’ve followed Hardman, it has the potential to go for a big gain. With both defenders wrong-footed, it’s an untouched 75-yard jaunt.
Chubb’s 45-yarder later in the second quarter was the result of basically a 2-on-2 matchup:
Two Georgia blockers tied up the defensive tackle, the linebacker had to commit to one hole or the other, and Chubb ran through the one he didn’t choose. It was an easy 5- to 10-yard gain that he turned into a field-flipper because of his ability to change direction and beat the OU safety (and because of how everyone else was blocking).
Michel’s 38-yard score late in the third quarter was the result of simple diagnosis:
Quarterback Jake Fromm identified OU’s alignment, knew that the defensive end was going to rush the passer (it was third-and-7), and changed the direction of the play at the line. As soon as the DE rushed upfield, this was a guaranteed 15-yarder. With the safety moving in the wrong direction at the snap, it was another easy touchdown.
These are the simplest concepts. Chaney has never been a reinvent-the-wheel guy; his ideas are based on identifying advantages and using experience to exploit them. They work because of diagnosis, talent, and, yes, blocking.
Great. So how much will they work against Alabama?
Chaney used these simple ideas to great effect all season. The Oklahoma game was the best example since the Missouri game, in which the Dawgs repeatedly sent blue-chip athletes through holes formed by wrong-footed Mizzou defenders.
But Oklahoma and Missouri had defenses that were, at best, mediocre. Alabama remains the gold standard.
Even with a series of late injuries at linebacker, Alabama’s defense still ranks an easy No. 1 in Rushing S&P+.
Georgia has played three games against teams in the Rushing S&P+ top 15 — two against fifth-ranked Auburn and one against 13th-ranked Notre Dame — and found the going a bit rougher.
- Against Notre Dame, Michel and Chubb combined for 136 yards in 26 carries (5.2 per carry). Ten of their 26 carries (38 percent) gained at least 5 yards — six of 13 for Michel, four of 13 for Chubb.
- In the first game against Auburn, Michel and Chubb combined for 48 yards in 20 carries (2.4). Only six of 20 carries (30 percent) gained at least 5 yards. The national average is around 39 percent.
- In the second game against Auburn, things improved: Chubb and Michel gained 122 yards in 20 carries (6.1), and nine of 20 (45 percent) gained at least 5 yards.
The addition of D’Andre Swift to the equation made a big difference in the second Auburn game. He carried seven times and caught three passes, and his 64-yard explosion early in the fourth quarter sealed the game.
Swift, the latest blue-chipper in the arsenal, carried 18 times for 191 yards over the final three games of the regular season and has averaged 7.8 yards per carry in his freshman campaign. He has added one more dimension to the attack. Or should I say, one more direction.
Chubb is the north-south guy; Michel kills you with diagonals. Swift is used in a lot of east-west ways. Add to that a solid if unspectacular short passing game — Fromm was 20-of-29 against OU but averaged just 10.5 yards per completion — and you’ve got too many different things going on for most defenses to account for. OU shut Swift down (6 yards in four carries) and rendered Chubb inconsistent but got massacred by Michel and gave up a few too many chain-moving completions.
If Chaney can figure out what his advantage is, he’ll beat you with it.
But how do you create advantages against Alabama?
How many can you create?
And when you’re able to create breakdowns, do they go for 50 yards or merely 10?
That last question could decide the game. Georgia ranks fourth in Rushing IsoPPP (which measures the explosiveness of a team’s successful plays), but Alabama’s defense ranks first. The Tide’s breakdowns are both infrequent and quickly fixed. They tackle well, and they force you to find multiple advantages.
The Dawgs won’t have to score 50 points to win, like they did in the Rose Bowl. But they’ll probably have to score at least 21. Can they create the big plays necessary?