Welcome back to Clemson Football and BIG GAME WEEK. The film braintrust here at STS has a new format planned for film study articles — both in previewing opponents and play by play reviews — but with the game of the year right out of the gate we decided to keep things as usual and make sure we achieved the appropriate and deserved amount of depth for each opposing unit. This means I’m up to take you for a look at the team which, ironically, most resembles pre-2018 Alabama just like Georgia intended when they hired Kirby Smart, before that approach became a relic even in Alabama.
Unfortunately, pre-2018 Alabama isn’t a relic or facetious joke at UGA’s expense on the defensive side of the ball. It is monstrous up front and similarly stacked with talent. It smothers offenses with various fronts and fits, deploys insane power up the middle, and now brings harrowing speed off the edge. Ideally, it would also allow for unbeatable pattern match and man coverages outside as well, but Georgia doesn’t quite have everything yet. It’s there where I predictably allowed myself (or perhaps you dear readers/ angry commenters encouraged it) to rush headlong from eight months of pessimism right into the usual late-August over-assured, hopeful optimism, But first, man, that front.
It would make sense Kirby Smart seems the stubborn Nick Saban disciple when you consider he worked under Saban for a decade, but departed just before transcendent QB play and opportunistic passing schemes diverted a title or two from Tuscaloosa over to Clemson. Saban then began to modernize in earnest while Smart was busy installing the old Saban machine in Athens. It’s on the offense where people point to Saban’s evolution, but Smart’s defense has actually remained more true to Saban’s roots than Saban himself — the latter’s base defense has been a hybrid, four-down linemen nickel for half a decade now — less and less the old 3-4 Saban and Smart employed to stifle the competition en route to four national titles before Smart went home to UGA in 2016. In the last few seasons though, Smart found himself on the same nickel-based path.
A decade ago a 3-4 front meant massive down-linemen and hybrid ends/linebackers on the line of scrimmage, blurring the lines between a 3-4 and 5-2 front. Those Saban and Smart 3-4 defenses didn’t simply employ your classic 2-gap, space-eating defensive linemen though — they were forces of nature who could shoot gaps on their own, depending on the run fit called — and in hindsight it was this concoction of talent and scheme superiority which pushed the rest of the SEC and assorted powers in college football to spread it out and give up trying to play Bama’s game like the rest of the country already had. The new battle, even in the SEC, was on the edge.
Like Saban, Smart is in the next phase of his evolution. Smart’s 3-4 no longer features three jumbo linemen who only need to occupy offensive linemen and keep oversized linebackers free to attack the line. This is because the run game is no longer just iso, power, inside zone, or sweep carries to the running back; it has long since moved to the flat with bubbles, flares, and jet passes which run around oversized linebackers and churn yards through coverage-inclined cornerbacks.
Smart has adapted and now boasts the most talented roster in the country; there is more speed on the edge than you usually find in 3-4 or 4-3 Under fronts which have long emphasized winning with power at the point of attack and obliterating the conventional run game (which UGA still does!). Smart, like his mentor and unintended measuring stick, has adjusted and stacked talent to overwhelm all but the most elite offenses.
Nowhere has that adjustment been more evident than in the front. If you’re a Clemson fan who has long grown tired of fruitless inside zone runs against equally or superiorly talented opponents before giving up on the run altogether, you might say, “but Alex, this is the time to run outside zone and finally dump the inside zone staple! Avoid getting blown off the interior line and run around that massive 3 down, archaic, pro style defense!”
Alas, you’re going to have a bad time. Smart’s “mint” defense is designed to prevent all of the above. In essence, Smart came to understand he can no longer employ his heavy 3-down front against the spread, with a nose and 5 tech ends:
Smart now favors a “tite” or in his terminology, “mint” front which shades the ends inside to 4i technique — inside the opposite tackle’s shoulder; akin to 3-tech in a 1-gap 4-3:
This better fills the B gap bubbles and protects the inside linebackers from offensive guards, which means they no longer need to be 250+ pounds to take on the guards which were not covered at all by 5 tech ends. Lighter linebackers are intuitively better at covering space, whether its a coverage zone, running sideline to sideline where the modern run game takes many forms, or shooting gaps in the bevy of blitz packages a multiple front allows.
Both in terms alignment and the counterintuitive notion Georgia’s defense has gotten better as it slimmed down, Smart’s solution to the spread was found in this mint front. Instead of heavy linemen and edge defenders hellbent on crashing inside run action, even the nose now is not meant to grow much beyond 330 pounds unless he’s, say, 6’6” and 360.
No longer are the two outside linebackers on the end of the lines of scrimmage. One is an off-ball nickel always aligned to the offense’s passing strength (as an aside, the greatest personnel vulnerability in UGA’s defense this weekend), and the other is a hybrid rusher — and even the latter is lighter and quicker than the old Saban “Jack” linebacker.
With lighter linemen and only four bodies along the line, might Clemson find running room inside against what has effectively a nickel defense now? Nope. Jordan Davis will still occupy a guard and center on every play at best, and eat them alive based on the last time we saw Clemson run blocking at worst. So run laterally around him? Perhaps, but the whole front has the structure to allow its speed to set the edge in swarms.
It’s out on the perimeter where Clemson has to contest this game, and Clemson should be able to do so when you look at the speed and physicality at receiver against inexperienced, unhealthy, or relatively vulnerable newcomers. Attack the slot and attack Kendrick, especially if he plays boundary corner, and even a lighter and quicker UGA front will grow weary of the chase.
In a nutshell, Georgia is built to stifle the run and no one is better at it, but has stop-gap reinforcements in the secondary. Clemson certainly needs to throw to win — not normally conducive to sustained success — yet they’re more than capable. Georgia must run the ball, because Daniels missing a few receiving targets against what will be a much-improved pass defense (in both front pressure and back end coverage) should prove difficult; not to mention Georgia has the best stable of backs in the land which absolutely must be the focal point.
Going deeper, Clemson won’t be able to conventionally run the ball unless Georgia allows such fool’s gold in order to mitigate the wide threats. Point being, if Clemson finds any success on the ground, it’s nothing Georgia can’t scheme off the table. Yet Clemson still must try in order to scheme something back onto the table in turn.
Clemson’s perimeter talent is serious trouble for the Georgia secondary, and I’d even take Clemson’s secondary (can’t believe I’m saying this!) over the UGA receivers in their current state. Georgia’s front should absolutely own the Clemson interior line, and boasts the offensive line which I view is more likely to withstand the opposing defensive line than do the Tigers. Logically, Clemson wins if they contest the game on the perimeter; UGA wins if they keep the battle constricted to the lines of scrimmage.
Clemson has the wider path to victory here in the modern game then, right? I said the same thing the last time Clemson faced a superiorly talented opponent in the Sugar Bowl, and we know how it unfolded. Smart isn’t stuck in a previous decade like his detractors attest, so I’m not exactly confident — I’ve been on record all offseason thinking Georgia is roughly a touchdown better than Clemson, much to the commenters’ chagrin.
Jimbo Fisher’s fading national title be damned, Kirby Smart is the best and brightest of the Saban coaching tree and I’ve pointed toward the apprentice beating the master in Atlanta this December all offseason. His defense can handle any attack, he finally has the quarterback which can propel the offense — long the facet truly stuck in a bygone era — to put them on top. Smart even addressed his primary weakness (defensive back) in the transfer portal, which remains taboo 75 miles up I-85. But through combination of injury and inexperience, the weakness in the back remains. In this regard, Clemson is fortunate to catch the Dawgs early: Clemson’s experience advantage mitigates Georgia’s talent advantage in week 1.
It’s the superior wide play on both sides of the ball which lead my head to swing back toward a Clemson pick, like I told you my eternally optimistic, homer brain eventually would. This mismatch outside in the modern game should be too much for Georgia to overcome — Justyn Ross against a backup nickel should be illegal — but there’s too much talent on the Georgia roster to think Clemson can run away with it.
Which leads to running away: the Georgia offensive line has more new blood, but is littered with 5 stars like Clemson has only begun to find on the OL, and as of Wednesday evening it seems Clemson may once again lack the best player on its defensive line in Tyler Davis (that’s our equivalent of Jordan Davis for you UGA readers). If the UGA OL can simply manage a stalemate against the Clemson defensive front, that’s enough for Daniels and the best running back group in the country to wear down the Clemson defense and give us a repeat of the 2014 opener — no matter whether the Georgia offense remains in the last decade or opens up under Daniels. It’s why my gut still says pick UGA in a sloppy game.
The “intangible” or coaching factor in a toss-up like this will probably skew toward Clemson from most pundits for no reason other than “lol Kirby” nonsense, and I hope I’ve dispelled that notion for you. I’m totally on board with this being Georgia’s year. If everyone were at full health (meaning George Pickens and Tykee Smith in particular) I’d still go with my gut.
But I can’t look past how well Clemson historically schemes big games to play out where they’re strongest, which coincidentally is where we find the Dawgs’ greatest weakness. The Tigers have more continuity, explosiveness, the (presumably) healthier roster exiting fall camp, and more known commodities in crucial spots across the three phases.
No matter the eventual result, I still think this is a playoff preview. The winner earns a mulligan and the loser finds the necessary urgency to mow through their softer than usual schedules.