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Georgia can beat Alabama ... if the Dawgs actually finish drives

UGA is Bama’s equal in almost every category except red zone offense ... in which UGA isn’t even Rutgers’ equal.

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NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In almost every regard, Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has had a fantastic year.

After losing stalwart running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, No. 1 receiver Javon Wims, and all-conference left tackle Isaiah Wynn, the Dawgs have actually improved from 14th to third in Off. S&P+, a remarkable accomplishment.

Plus, for the second straight year, the Georgia offense has responded to a loss with near-perfection.

  • Last year, the Bulldogs lost, 40-17, to Auburn but averaged 41 points per game and 7.9 yards per play over their next four games to reach the National Championship.
  • This time, they got smoked by LSU, 36-16, and responded with ... 42 points per game and 7.8 yards per play over five games.

In their five-game streak, the Dawgs have looked the part of a national title contender. Per the Football Study Hall college football stat profiles, their average S&P+ percentile performance in that span has been 93 percent, their average post-game win expectancy 98 percent.

Alabama’s averages over that same span have been almost identical: S&P+ percentile average of 94 percent, average post-game win expectancy of 100.

Georgia looked more and more like Bama’s equal as the two teams approached Saturday’s SEC title game (CBS, 4 p.m. ET). Now just imagine how good the Dawgs would look with a competent goal line offense.

In Finding the Winning Edge, former 49ers head coach Bill Walsh espoused the need for intricate, categorized red zone planning.

Group your play-calling with regard to the ten-yard divisions of the red zone (e.g., 30-yard line, 20-yard line, 10-yard line). Once inside the 20-yard line, the passing game should normally be opened up since the depth of the drop is less likely to result in a sack which could take your team out of field goal range. In addition, since defenses tend to base their red-zone strategy according to the location of the ball with regard to the ten-yard divisions, considering these defensive tendencies when establishing a red-zone offense can produce positive results. [...]

A first-and-goal offensive package should include two or three runs and one or two passes off of those formations. Don’t hesitate to give serious consideration to throwing the ball on the goal line. ... Because it is often extremely tough to run the ball well in a goal-line situation, a team should plan to have passes as 50 percent of its goal-line offense.

The closer you get to the goal line, the more it changes your options. How has Georgia dealt with that so far?

  • In open play (snaps between the offense’s 10 and the defense’s 30), Georgia’s success rate is 54.1 percent, third in FBS.
  • Between the opponent’s 21 and 30, Georgia’s success rate is 48.8 percent, 19th.
  • Between the opponent’s 11 and 20, Georgia’s success rate is 46 percent, 26th.
  • Inside the opponent’s 10, Georgia’s success rate is 40 percent, 116th.
  • Inside the opponent’s 3, Georgia’s success rate is 28.6 percent, 129th.

As the goal line nears, UGA changes from one of the country’s best offenses to one of the worst.

The Dawgs’ overall performance has improved down the stretch, but the red zone offense has gotten worse — their success rate inside the opponent’s 10 was 45 percent in the first seven games and just 38 percent in the last five. And the only reason it’s that high is because of the UMass and Georgia Tech games.

Against Florida, Kentucky, and Auburn, the three top-30 defenses the Dawgs faced during the current streak, their success rate inside the 10 was a ghastly 19 percent.

Needless to say, you’re probably not going to beat Alabama kicking field goals.

This could be the deciding factor in the SEC title game.

Granted, creating scoring chances against Alabama tends to be challenging, but Georgia has about as good a chance as anyone. The Dawgs have created scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40, including touchdowns from beyond the 40) on 68 percent of their drives, third in FBS. (Alabama’s offense: second.)

If they could get into the end zone from beyond the 10, they were golden — despite the dreadful goal line offense, they still averaged 5 points per scoring opportunity, 23rd in FBS. (Granted, that average fell to 4 against defenses in the S&P+ top 30.) But the closer they get to the end zone, the less confident they become.

Chaney has long been one of college football’s best OCs at identifying what his personnel does and creating simple schemes to take advantage.

To say the least, Georgia’s personnel does plenty of things well this year. The run game is in good hands with D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, and company, and it has ignited since the LSU loss.

In the last five games, Swift has rushed for at least 100 yards four times (the only time he didn’t was against UMass, when he only got nine carries) and averaged 8.8 yards per carry, while Holyfield has contributed 82 yards per game, 6 per carry. Blue-chip freshman James Cook has gotten into the act, rushing 10 times for 115 yards and two scores against UMass and Georgia Tech.

Chaney’s got a quarterback who throws a solid deep ball and stands up to blitzes. Jake Fromm has completed 22 passes of 25-plus yards, and he’s the reason Georgia ranks 20th in blitz down success rate and seventh in blitz down big-play rate. (The Dawgs are also 103rd in blitz down sack rate, which proves that a willingness to step up into the pocket comes with a cost.)

Still, “simple” is just a few steps away from “uncreative.”

And creativity has been a massive issue in the red zone. The most obvious example came in the Florida game, when, because of Gator penalties, the Dawgs got a series of goal line snaps in a single series and basically tried to do the same thing over and over again. These are all screenshots from different plays in the same series:


Four handoffs and two QB sneaks generated zero yards.

Now, this may have been Chaney trying to prove a point and instill confidence in his offense by getting them to outmuscle a solid Florida defense. But UGA had similar problems against Kentucky and Auburn in the weeks that followed.

It’s almost freeing playing Alabama, in a weird way. If you can’t outmuscle Kentucky for one yard, you won’t be able to against the Tide. So you almost have to try something different.

Fromm appeared to suffer from a crisis of confidence in the loss to LSU. But instead of giving more reps to blue-chip backup Justin Fields (who has at times been used as a red zone option and has been mostly ineffective in such a painfully limited role), Chaney and head coach Kirby Smart reemphasized their support for Fromm, and it has paid off. His passing line since that game: 73 percent completion rate, 13.3 yards per completion, 11-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio, 195 passer rating.

Swift’s eruption has helped the play-action game, but Fromm just looks like a different quarterback. He was 5-for-5 for 106 yards in limited action against UMass, and per PFF, he graded out damn near perfectly against Georgia Tech.

UMass isn’t Bama, quite obviously, but Georgia hits the postseason playing its best ball of the year.

Still, scoring chances are still going to be much harder to come by, and whatever red zone tricks Chaney’s been storing up, now’s the time.

Alabama has not been tested for four full quarters all season.

The last time this team was scared for even a second was in last season’s national title game against Georgia. After a decade of nearly unprecedented dominance, Nick Saban might have put together his best team yet.

But if Georgia can avoid settling for field goals, the Dawgs are capable of scaring Bama once more. And when it’s been so long since you’ve been tested, you don’t always respond as well as you hope.

Georgia has an excellent chance. But those last 10 yards will make all the difference. Again.