FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Georgia’s defense was nearly invincible for three months, allowing less than a touchdown per game.
Then came the Southeastern Conference championship game against Alabama, where the Crimson Tide seemingly cracked the code on the Bulldogs’ stingy D in a 41-24 victory.
As No. 2 Michigan prepares to face No. 3 Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl on Friday night, how much of Alabama’s plan can be replicated by the Wolverines?
“It’s hard to say blueprint because if it only happens one game in a year it obviously didn’t work too well for too many other people,” Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said Monday. “But you know, it does give you a little bit of confidence.”
Good teams have bad games, but Georgia’s defensive meltdown against Alabama was a special kind of outlier.
Since 2000, only four teams have held their opponents below 10 points per game for an entire season: Alabama in 2011 (8.15); USC in 2008 (9.0); Miami in 2001 (9.36); and TCU in 2000 (9.64).
Georgia has a chance to become the fifth, entering the playoff having allowed 9.5 points per game.
None of those previous four teams allowed more than 27 points in a regular-season game. The 41 points Georgia allowed to the Crimson Tide represents a third of the Bulldogs’ season total of 124.
Going back to 2009, no defense that has led the nation in yards per play —- which Georgia currently does at 4.01 —- has had a worse single game than the 7.66 ypp the Bulldogs allowed to Alabama.
Only Texas in 2009 (7.29 against Texas A&M) and Alabama in 2011 (7.41 to Georgia Southern) have led the country in yards per play allowed and had a game in which they permitted more than 7.0 yards per play.
Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who is working two jobs these days as he prepares to take over as Oregon head coach, said one poor performance didn’t send the Bulldogs scrambling back to the drawing board.
“I think you have to approach it like any game that we have had this season where you go back and you try to be analytical, regardless of the result,” Lanning said. “We take a deep dive every single game when we’re successful, we take a deep dive when we’re not.”
The Bulldogs weren’t about to share any schematic tweaks they may have made over the past month to shore up a defense that generated no sacks and allowed Alabama receivers to run free.
Mostly, the Bulldogs talked about getting back to basics: Tracking the ball in the air, tackling in space, getting multiple defenders to a ball carrier and communicating.
“It’s just the little things that make a big difference when it comes to the games. A lot of people might not think so, but we think so and that’s why we’re really focused on that,” Bulldogs safety Lewis Cine said.
Lanning said Michigan’s offense stresses a defense’s discipline with misdirection, motion and some gadgetry. The Wolverines are run heavy, but still have more plays of 50-plus yards (17) than any team in major college football this season.
“There’s multiple plays they use to set up the next play, whether it be play-action runs to set up play-action shots down the field; whether it be their misdirection game, with reverses, flea-flickers,” Lanning said. “They do a great job utilizing trick plays to get the ball down extended down the field, as well as those shots.”
ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who will call the Orange Bowl, said the Alabama game wasn’t so much about what the Crimson Tide ran but who was running it. Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young (421 yards passing) and receiver Jameson Williams (seven catches for 184 yards and two TDs) took apart a Georgia secondary that had not been similarly challenged all season.
“But I don’t think Michigan has an offense that necessarily can just draw up a play or a sequence of plays and say, ‘OK, we’re going to be in a good spot to run the exact same offensive scheme that Alabama did. Hey, Alabama gave us the blueprint, let’s just do exactly what ‘Bama did,'” Herbstreit said. “Just because that’s not their identity.”
Michigan has run the ball more (548 attempts) than any playoff team behind an offensive line that won the Joe Moore Award as the best in the nation. Third-team All-American Hassan Haskins is a 6-foot-1, 220-pounder who has run for 1,288 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Georgia might find Michigan’s approach refreshing compared with Alabama’s. The Bulldogs’ front seven is anchored by three massive tackles, including All-American Jordan Davis.
“It’s gonna be a train wreck inside,” Gattis said. “Two smash-mouth teams going against each other. ”