In this year’s Gameday on Rocky Top preseason magazine, I wrote a narrative review of Jeremy Pruitt’s defenses at Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama. The numbers from Tallahassee and Tuscaloosa represent a ceiling you hope Pruitt can approach in Knoxville: Florida State had the best defense in college football in 2013, Alabama the last two years. It’s impressive Pruitt was able to accomplish that in his first season as defensive coordinator with those two teams, but some heavy lifting was done in recruiting before he arrived, and both of his predecessors left to become head coaches in the SEC.
So if you’re looking for a good comparison for Tennessee in year one, I wouldn’t use Florida State or Alabama. They’re the long-term goals; expecting the 2018 Vol defense to be the best in college football is an exercise in futility. But if we want a taste of what we might expect, Pruitt’s 2014 Georgia defense offers a much more fair comparison.
Todd Grantham’s final season as Georgia’s defensive coordinator in 2013 featured eight games when the Dawgs gave up 30+ points. They also forced just 15 turnovers in 13 games, 111th nationally. Georgia went 8-5, Grantham went to Louisville, and Pruitt headed to Athens. The Dawgs just missed a BCS Championship Game appearance the year before in 2012, winning their second straight division title. The program was in a healthier place in Pruitt’s first year than Tennessee’s is now. Georgia had also signed classes ranked between 8th-12th in the 247 Composite from 2012-14, a more consistent recruiting presence than Tennessee enjoyed at the end of Butch Jones’ tenure. But there are enough similarities, including significant room for improvement, for what Pruitt did in his first year with Georgia’s defense to inform the conversation on what he and his staff could do with Tennessee’s this fall.
The Year One Roller Coaster
The theme for Georgia’s defense in 2014 was inconsistency, a year one staple crop. When the Dawgs were good, they were very good. That started in week one with a 45-21 win over #16 Clemson. The Tigers gained just 291 yards and 3.83 yards per play, including only 88 yards on the ground. True freshman Deshaun Watson only saw back-up duty, but that wouldn’t last long.
The win vaulted Georgia to #6 in the polls headed to South Carolina, which was torched by Texas A&M (Kenny Football!) in week one. But not only was Pruitt’s defense unable to turn in another stellar performance, they played one of their worst games of the year. South Carolina went for 447 yards and 38 points, and a late goal-line stand led to a missed chip shot field goal for Georgia in a 38-35 Gamecock victory. Dylan Thompson was 21-of-30 for 271 yards (9.0 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns.
So it went for Georgia in 2014. They shut out Troy in a 66-0 win, then hosted Tennessee the following week. The Vols piled up 401 yards of offense, including a 23-of-35 for 264 yards and three touchdowns performance from Justin Worley, who was knocked out of the game briefly. Two second half fumbles in crucial moments doomed the Vols in a 35-32 loss, but Worley’s performance was good enough to keep Josh Dobbs on the bench for another month.
After Georgia beat Vanderbilt 44-17, Worley’s performance looked even better when the Dawgs went to #23 Missouri and shut the Tigers out 34-0. Maty Mauk went 9-of-21 for 97 yards (4.6 yards per pass) and was intercepted four times. And on the ground, the Tigers carried it 23 times for just 50 yards. It was the best performance of the year for Georgia’s defense (and, remember, the Dawgs are doing this with Hutson Mason at quarterback).
Back in the Top 10, the Dawgs had their sights set on Atlanta and more. Georgia led Arkansas 45-19 in the fourth quarter before allowing two late scores in a 45-32 win. Then they had a bye week before facing the hated Florida Gators. At this point, Georgia had won three straight in the series. But not this time: Florida ran for 418 yards while attempting only six passes in the game (remember Treon Harris?), and it was more than enough in a 38-20 win. Georgia had the league’s second-best rushing defense coming in, but allowed seven yards per carry to the Gators. More alarmingly, the defense’s two most costly performances (South Carolina and Florida) both came after bye weeks. This loss cost the Dawgs the SEC East: Georgia beat Missouri 34-0, but the Tigers didn’t lose again in league play.
But the roller coaster had twists and turns left still. After beating Kentucky 63-31, Georgia hosted #9 Auburn and bottled them up 34-7. Nick Marshall completed 11-of-23 passes for only 112 yards and the Dawgs forced three turnovers. After beating Charleston Southern, #9 Georgia faced #16 Georgia Tech in the regular season finale. A weird game featuring multiple blocked kicks and fumbles in goal-to-go situations, including a 99-yard scoop-and-score for the Georgia defense, ended on an overtime interception by the Yellow Jackets for a 30-24 GT win.
The loss knocked Georgia out of New Year’s Six contention and sent them instead to the Belk Bowl to face #21 Louisville. But the Dawgs made sure the season ended on a high note, blasting the Cardinals 37-14. Louisville ran 27 times for only 62 yards.
After finishing 54th in yards per play allowed in 2013, the Dawgs improved to 17th in Pruitt’s first year. While still allowing 30+ points six times, it was an improvement over Grantham’s eight the previous year. And they nearly doubled their turnover output, going from 15 in 2013 to 29 in 2014.
What Do We Learn From The Roller Coaster?
The comparison made by many with this Tennessee staff is the one Lane Kiffin brought in during the 2009 season. That group rode a similar roller coaster with similar relative success. The Clawfense was 110th in yards per play in 2008; Kiffin improved them to 53rd in 2009. That group struggled early, then turned the mother of all corners against Georgia with 7.38 yards per play and 45 points. They were good enough to have a shot to beat Alabama and took down South Carolina. But they also came crashing back to earth in a blowout loss at Ole Miss with only 275 yards of offense, and were largely ineffective in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia Tech (240 yards).
We obviously don’t get the Year Two data on Kiffin, but it’s comforting to know that Year Two at Georgia for Pruitt featured a defense that dominated everyone but superior competition, with one exception. In 2015 the Dawgs got torched by Alabama, then famously gave up a bunch of yards and points to Josh Dobbs and the Vols in a 38-31 Tennessee comeback. They also struggled again with Florida in a stunning loss, one that would ultimately close the book on Mark Richt’s time in Athens. But in every other game that season, Pruitt’s defense was lights out. South Carolina scored 20 points, but Georgia scored 52. Vanderbilt, Missouri, Kentucky, and Auburn all scored 14 points or less, as did Georgia Tech. Penn State got 17 in the bowl game.
I imagine Tennessee fans would take this same scenario: a roller coaster year one that makes overall improvement defensively, and a year two unit that may still struggle against the very best but starts imposing its will on everyone else.