Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but an elite Georgia Bulldogs team looks like it might be a national title contender if they can juuuuuust open up the offense a little. There’s some of the best talent in the country on the roster, with the right quarterback and coordinator to unlock it we might be sitting on another 2019 LSU. Kirby’s put together another defense good enough to suffocate all but ten to twenty offenses in the country, how hard can it be? Nick Saban, Smart’s mentor, made this transition years ago. Kirby watched it happen.
Well dear reader, it’s harder than it sounds evidently, since Todd Monken is the third man to be named Georgia’s offensive coordinator since Kirby Smart came back to Athens. The Bulldogs have recently established themselves as an elite program that is comfortably second best in the SEC in the most frustrating way possible. They have been exactly good enough to inspire hope and exactly flawed enough to dash it at the worst possible minute. Here’s a fun fact, this team lead or tied two SEC title games for something like 118 minutes against Alabama and lost both. If Icarus had a team, he would root for the Bulldogs.
As far as candidates to sail a cursed ship go, you could do worse than offensive coordinator Todd Monken and quarterback JT Daniels. Monken is an experienced offensive coordinator, coaching everywhere from “power-toss” Les Miles offenses to the early 2010’s Oklahoma State air raid to the modern day NFL.
Daniels is a five star transfer from USC who took over as a starter late last season and put up over three hundred yards per game on a 10/2 TD/INT ratio over his starts. Over Daniels four games as a starter the Bulldogs offense put up 37.5 points per game, there’s reason for optimism in Athens.
Monken and Daniels aren’t the only ones back from a strong 2020 offense. Running back Zamir White may have ran for 1,000 yards in a full season, James Cook provides a versatile threat out of the backfield or out wide, and there are plenty of fresh legs pushing them on the depth chart. The Bulldogs return most of an offensive line that was elite run blocking, and did well pass blocking given the shuffling at quarterback.
Things are hairier at receiver and tight end. Georgia will be without the programs best receiver in George Pickens due to an ACL tear during spring camp, a probable starter (LSU transfer Arik Gilbert) is sitting for personal reasons, starting tight end Darnell Washington suffered a foot injury that may require surgery, and many backups are also listed on the injury report. We still don’t know who will play (and in what condition) from the list of probable and questionable players, but this is guaranteed not to be a unit at full strength to start the season. The loss of Pickens in particular looms large. His presence often forced teams to double team, getting the rest of the receivers on the field favorable matchups.
Schematically and philosophically Monken likes to hunt the big play. By his definition, explosiveness is defined by a 12+ yard run or a 16+ yard pass. According to Monken an elite offense should generate an explosive play once every eight snaps or so. You string 12-14 of those explosive plays together and, so his theory goes, you’ll get one of the best offenses in the country.
This thirst for the big play shows up in every play the Bulldogs call. In the running game it manifests in a few ways. To start with, Georgia calls inside zone hunting for the cutback.
This is paired with sweeps that pull linemen to the perimeter, counter, and not much else when Daniels is behind center. To make up for the lack of schematic diversity in the running game the Bulldogs dress it up with motion, jet sweep action and frequently moving tight ends. To call JT Daniels a non runner doesn’t impress upon you how unwilling he was to run last year. According to ESPN, Daniels did not record a single rushing attempt besides sacks in 2020.
When the UGA running game is firing, offensive linemen are getting downfield and setting second level blocks so that talented backs like White and Cook can work magic. When the UGA running game sputters, it’s usually because a defensive front is able to get into the backfield and blow things up before the back gets to the line of scrimmage. The offenses focus on getting linemen downfield as quickly as possible leaves Georgia chronically susceptible to it.
Getting penetration is something that Clemson’s front four should be up to the task of. When the Bulldogs struggled to move the ball last year, such as games against Mississippi State and Cincinatti, there were long stretches of one and two yard runs leading to third and long.
That’s not to say Georgia can’t beat you through the air. When asked what he took from his air raid experience in Oklahoma, Monken answered “being able to throw to win”. The Bulldogs passing game draws from a diverse set of sources, pulling inspiration from air raid staples, the spread-I offenses of Baylor, and NFL style motion and matchup hunting. Daniels may not be much of a running threat, but he’s great at avoiding the rush and throwing under pressure. You cannot just blitz him out of games.
This diversity enables Georgia and Monken to lean on the passing game to accomplish different goals. Air raid concepts (shallow cross, spacing, snag four verticals etc.) are mostly used to provide the offense with a consistent short to intermediate passing attack. Because Daniels can hit these throws consistently, Georgia is able to use the passing game to keep the chains moving.
For explosive plays in the passing game Monken goes to a combination of aggressive play-action “shot” plays and screens off the running game. Daniels has the arm to push the ball downfield should the run fake freeze up a safety, and Georgia’s skill talent/athletic offensive line are dangerous in space. Georgia does a good job selling their run fakes, pulling linemen away from the play to sucker linebackers and safeties up.
Combine this with how eagerly Monken uses motion to both help his quarterback identify coverage, and to create mismatches, and you can see how he schemes big plays open. Take this play for example, RB Kenny McIntosh motions out of the backfield and is picked up by the corner previously covering Pickens. This leaves Pickens on a linebacker and the rest is history.
The advanced statistics I’ve looked at favor Clemson slightly and I’m inclined to agree. Georgia’s offense talented enough to run over all but the best defenses in college football. On Saturday they will face one of the best defenses in college football. From my perspective I see a UGA team that’s probably going to have to try to “pass to win” with many of their key pass catchers hobbled at best and sidelined at worst.
The path to a Bulldogs victory probably isn’t moving the ball consistently, it’s capitalizing off a handful of big plays and hoping defense and/or special teams can chip in. Unfortunately for Tigers fans, Monken is exactly the coordinator to scheme up those big plays. Fortunately for every non-invested fan I expect one hell of a ball game. Welcome to college football season, we’re very glad you’re here.