KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Georgia coach Kirby Smart says he doesn’t deserve the credit for the way the Bulldogs’ defense is performing, even though his background suggests otherwise.
“That’s not my defense. Coach Tucker does a tremendous job with that defense,” Smart said, referring to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker after the Bulldogs’ 41-0 victory over Tennessee on Saturday. “They play hard for Coach Tucker.”
Yet it seems rather coincidental that defense is leading the way as Smart attempts to build Georgia (5-0, 2-0 SEC) into a legitimate playoff contender. The Bulldogs leaped from seventh to fifth in the Top 25 that came out Sunday.
Smart was the defensive coordinator for Alabama’s 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015 national champions. The former Georgia defensive back returned to his alma mater after that 2015 season, and his Bulldogs now boast one of the nation’s stingiest defenses in his second year on the job.
Georgia has yielded the second-fewest points per game (9.2) and the third-fewest yards per game (244.0) of any Football Bowl Subdivision team. They Bulldogs have allowed a total of three points in two Southeastern Conference games, as they drubbed Mississippi State 31-3 before blanking Tennessee.
The Bulldogs handed Tennessee (3-2, 0-2) its most lopsided home loss since 1905 and its first shutout since 1994. Tennessee had scored in 289 consecutive games, which had been the nation’s fourth-longest active streak.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said afterward that “it was as bad of an offensive performance as I’ve ever been a part of.”
Georgia had plenty to do with it, going into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt (3-2).
“We come in each and every game with the same attitude - that’s just to dominate our opponent,” cornerback Tyrique McGhee said.
That’s exactly what they’ve done.
Tennessee coaches and players talked all week about Georgia’s extraordinary depth on defense and how it allows the Bulldogs to come at opponents in waves. Georgia outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter says the defense benefits from facing “the best scout team in the country” all week in practice.
Those elements added up to a super September performance.
Georgia won 20-19 at No. 21 Notre Dame, which was ranked 24th at the time, by limiting the Fighting Irish to 55 yards rushing on 37 attempts. Notre Dame has averaged 363 yards rushing and 8.3 yards per carry in its other four games this season.
Tennessee’s John Kelly leads the SEC in rushing, but ran for just 44 yards on 16 carries Saturday. Georgia ended the Volunteers’ streak of 32 straight games in which they had at least one rushing touchdown.
“Stop the run: That’s our No. 1 goal,” Carter said. “Stop the run and everything else will fall in place.”
Everything has fallen into place for this defense thus far. Georgia’s dominance on defense has enabled the Bulldogs to earn their first 5-0 start since 2012, the last time they reached the SEC championship game.
They’ve been shutting down opponents all year. Now they’re getting more opportunistic.
After failing to get an interception in the first three games of the season, Georgia has two interceptions in each of the last two weeks. McGhee’s interception on the first play from scrimmage set the tone for the rest of the game.
Smart loves the way his defense has delivered, even though he plays down how much he had to do with it.
“At halftime, I didn’t need to go over and see the defensive players,” Smart said. “They had it under control. They were doing adjustments, doing a really nice job. Give credit where credit is due.”
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