Was Georgia's Defense the Best Ever?
NCAA National Championship - The Georgia Bulldogs are national champions for the first time since 1980 following a College Football Playoff title game victory over Alabama that felt like two games in one. Much of the first three quarters harkened back to the way championships were won a decade prior, or the Alabama vs. LSU regular season defensive slugfest for the ages, a 9-6 overtime victory by the Tigers that set up a championship rematch between SEC heavyweights in 2011. Football has evolved and offensive efficiencies have exploded over the last decade, but defense was once again the featured attraction on Monday night in another SEC heavyweight rematch for a national championship crown.
Georgia and Alabama traded field goals and punts to a 9-6 score deep into the third quarter before either offense found a big spark, a spark lit first by the Bulldogs defense and special teams units. The Crimson Tide had drives of 56, 48, 55, and 68 yards, but no touchdowns to show for it through eight possessions. On their fourth field goal attempt of the night, Georgia's Jalen Carter powered through the line and swatted the ball out of the air. On Georgia's first play on the ensuing possession, running back James Cook slashed through the line and ran 67 yards downfield to put Georgia in the red zone for the first time since early in the second quarter. Zamir White cashed in for the game's first touchdown and Georgia's first lead three plays later.
Alabama threatened again on the next series, but once again were denied by the Georgia defense as they approached the goal line, settling for another field goal. The Bulldogs handed it back to the Crimson Tide three plays after that with a wild did-he-or-didn't-he fumble by quarterback Stetson Bennett and an even more wild did-he-really-not-step-out fumble recovery by defensive back Brian Branch. That turnover set up Alabama's only touchdown of the night, and the storyline of another Georgia letdown against Nick Saban was taking shape.
After lighting up Georgia in the first matchup in December, it's notable that Alabama's only touchdown this time around came on a short-field possession with offensive gains of only 4, 3, and 3 yards. Heisman Trophy-winner Bryce Young flashed his brilliance throughout the game, but Alabama's biggest play potential was neutralized by critical knee injuries to wide receivers John Metchie (knocked out of the SEC Championship Game) and Jameson Williams (sidelined in the first half of the National Championship Game).
Georgia's defense was brilliant, hounding Young and providing little room for any of Alabama's wealth of weapons to take over. Bennett and the Georgia offense didn't flinch after the seemingly catastrophic gaffe, showcasing its big-play potential when it mattered most down the stretch. Bennett answered the Alabama touchdown with a scoring drive to retake the lead, delivering a 40-yard touchdown strike to Adonai Mitchell in traffic in the end zone. And after the Bulldogs forced another Crimson Tide three-and-out, Bennett struck again, leading a 62-yard drive capped by a touchdown pass to Brock Bowers. The offensive burst didn't put the game fully out of reach, however, and neither team grabbed a two-score lead until Kelee Ringo picked off Young with less than a minute remaining and sprinted to the end zone for a pick-six and a sealed 33-18 victory.
Their offense and special teams shined in big spots in the second half, but Georgia's defense proved to be the deciding factor throughout the game, just as it was in all but one other Bulldogs game this season. It may be several years before the total wealth of talent and depth across the Georgia defense is retrospectively appreciated (and NFL draft picks and next-level accolades are tallied in awe). Head coach Kirby Smart assembled and stacked elite recruiting classes in Athens for several years to put the program in this position to finally slay the Saban dragon. In college football's offensive boom era, there have been doubts as to whether a defense-first program could or would be enough to win it all, and Georgia proved that it is possible. They also proved it might require that defense to be loaded with four- and five-star elite talent at every position to pull it off, something that may only be truly possible once or twice a decade.
In terms of DFEI, my opponent-adjusted overall defensive efficiency metric, Georgia rates as the best defense on record (since 2007), eclipsing both the 2011 and 2016 Alabama defenses that own most of the per-possession metrics I've tracked. It's impossible to truly measure teams from different seasons against one another, but FEI ratings are calibrated to represent efficiency relative to average, and Georgia's defense set a new standard in 2021. If, on average, every possession is worth about 2.2 points, Georgia took away the equivalent of 1.9 of those points on average on every opponent drive. They were overwhelmingly suffocating, stunningly fast, and exceptionally fierce. And no, they were not invincible. But when given the chance to right the wrongs from their first meeting against an elite offense, they swarmed and dominated.
I didn't pick Georgia to win the national championship at the start of the year. My prediction that three of the four playoff spots would likely be claimed by the elite grouping of Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia missed as well, though only slightly; even in "down" seasons, Ohio State, Clemson, and Oklahoma combined to win 32 games and each won at least 10. The championship portion of the sport remains very top-heavy, and we're likely to see another very familiar set of contenders next year. To date, 21 of the 24 games in the College Football Playoff have been won by only four teams, and the same programs dominate recruiting cycles year-in and year-out as well.
This past season also treated us to spectacular games and amazing moments by dozens of teams outside of that elite class. Michigan, Baylor, Utah, and Pittsburgh all won major conference championships, and none of them were projected to do so at the start of the season, nor even in the middle of the season for some of them. Cincinnati brought the Group of 5 to the playoff stage, UTSA had its best season in program history, and Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe set FBS records for single-season passing yards and touchdowns. Even when the top of the sport is relatively predictable, there are still 130 teams, and all of them have the potential to do something remarkable. College football delivered in big ways and small ways all season, and I can't wait to run it back again this fall.
2021 FEI Ratings (Final)
FEI ratings (FEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage each team would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offense ratings (OFEI) and defense ratings (DFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantages for each team unit against an average opponent.
Preseason projected ratings are progressively phased out over the course of the season. Expanded ratings for all teams include overall, offense, defense, and special teams efficiency ratings. Ratings and supporting data are calculated from the results of non-garbage possessions in FBS-vs.-FBS games.