No one expected this. Georgia finished the 2016 season 8-5. Their offense would end the season ranked 93rd in S&P+, finishing no higher than 80th in any of the six categories. Their defense was far better -- 34th in S&P+ -- but still a far cry from elite. How did an 8-5 team that lost to four unranked teams (Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Georgia Tech)--and one bad ranked team (Florida)--catapult themselves into an SEC Championship and, ultimately, the CFP Championship game? (scroll to bottom for TL;DR summary)
There are several answers to that question, and there had to be. Perhaps it's easier to start with what did not change: the staff. Smart brought back a nearly identical staff, only changing his defensive line coach (the one holdover from the Richt staff).
Freshman wunderkind Jacob Eason did not return
Lots of statniks will tell you that a returning QB is crucial to success. Jacob Eason was said to be one of the keys to Georgia taking a big step forward on offense in 2017. While has freshman campaign certainly was not a wild success, a 2:1 TD:INT ratio and a 120 rating had Georgia fans and coaches salivating about what he might be able to do in year two.
Quarterback Jacob Eason is now entering his second year, which will help. Last year not only was he a freshman, but he was learning a new offense, the pro-style scheme and drop-backs being different from the shotgun and spread-oriented offense he played in high school. That led to the offense being slower than desired last year, partly out of Eason needing to get the call right, and partly the coaches wanting to manage him and those calls. “The training wheels are off this year,” Wims said. “And they’re giving him the ability to make checks. They’re giving him the ability to be a veteran, second-year quarterback.”
This was the "quick fix" the offense needed--an experienced QB. Some other minor tweaks were discussed in the same article, but this was largely the same offense, and even a lot of the same personnel: Chubb and Michel returned almost all of the rushing production, and five of the six top receivers returned.
And then Jacob Eason got hurt on the third series of the season.
So...same offense, same staff, mostly the same players. Now with a true freshman QB. How did it go from #93 to #11 in S&P+? From 24.5 PPG (#102) to 35.4 PPG (#20) in scoring? You won't like the answer...
"I remember, in my disappointment, I just don’t think we blocked really well the whole first year at Georgia," Chaney said. "And you say, 'What do you want to change?' People think change is putting a wideout over there and a tight end over here. Hell, I want to block better. I just wanted to block better. I sit here a year later and if you asked me, 'What’s the difference from last year to this year?' We blocked better." "You can’t look at our success and say, 'Oh, Chaney went to the RPO. The dumbass didn’t do it a year ago, now he is,'" Chaney said, drawing laughs. "I wish it were that easy. Sorry, I didn’t mean to ruin your article."
But yeah, let's talk about the RPOs for a moment, because there is more to that than Chaney lets on. The article rightly focuses on the mentality change and the desire for Georgia to assert themselves on the ground, but it does ignore that the Georgia offense did make a pretty significant change in moving almost entirely to a shotgun offense.
See, Georgia is a "manball" team that tried to hire Dan Enos. Their offense is predicated on a smashmouth style that grinds down opponents with superior OL and RB play, putting Georgia in a position to control the game and win the 4th quarter. And in 2017, they were highly successful, posting 3,876 rushing yards along with 42 TDs at a 5.79 YPC clip. Having guys like Michel and Chubb in your backfield helps, but in 2016 virtually the same guys produced 2,486 yards at 4.66 YPC, and only 18 TDs.
Despite a bad OL in 2016 and losing two starters (sound familiar?), the 2017 OL was dominant, ending the season 12th in adjusted line yards and 9th in opportunity rate. Those numbers were good enough to weather a 109th ranking in sack rate.
Yes, it turns out that Jake Fromm was far better than anyone could have imagined. But let's not forget that Eason was the starting QB, suggesting that he won the job. So perhaps it wasn't Fromm's talent, but his youth, that forced Georgia to change their offense into an offense, that, well, works.
Fromm's arrival meant simplification. It meant more shotgun, more spread, and even more running. So while the addition of RPOs was ballyhooed as the "key" change to the offense, the reality was that a simpler version was required in order for Fromm to even operate the unit. Shotgun sets with more receivers spreads the defense out, making it harder to disguise coverages and blitzes, simplifying reads, footwork, and even hand-offs for the QB. Georgia is still a power, pro-style offense, but Fromm spent nearly all of his snaps in the pistol or shotgun, and not becuase of a "zone read" or QB run philosophy. The goal was to run a simple enough offense for a true freshman to make the most of the available talent.
Georgia's passing attack ranked #106 in YPG, but Fromm's 160.09 rating was good for 8th in the country. Meanwhile--out of shotgun sets running power football--the running game flourished into the #2 rushing attack in the SEC and #7 in rushing S&P+.
Overall, Georgia is one of only four teams to be in the top seven in all six S&P+ categories, demonstrating the ability of their offense to find efficiency in the passing and running game.
Summary and Conclusions
- Georgia did NOT make offensive staff changes, and still went from a five-loss, incompetent offense to one of the best in college football
- Georgia did NOT change offensive philosophy--they are still a pro-style outfit focused on a power running game.
- Georgia did NOT change much of their skill position personnel.
- Georgia had a true freshman QB and two new OL.
- Georgia did change to a more simplified, shotgun-oriented offense, increasing their efficiency in both the running and passing game.
- The biggest difference in the success of the offense was improvement and emphasis in blocking.
Simplification, a clear identity, and repetition of base concepts...sounds like a recipe for a successful college offense, and maybe, just maybe, Michigan can make a Georgia-like leap next season.