Youth was served on Georgia's defense this season, and it didn't always serve the Bulldogs well.
Georgia began this football season ranked fifth nationally but never had the defense to accompany an explosive offense that continued to produce amid a rash of injuries. The Bulldogs have allowed 30 or more points eight times entering Wednesday's Gator Bowl against Nebraska, shattering the program's previous single-season high of five.
The most impressive defensive stretch Georgia produced was in the fourth quarter at Auburn, but a collision between safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews with 25 seconds remaining erased that productivity as the Tigers scored on an improbable 73-yard touchdown pass.
"You shake your head, but some things aren't meant to be at a certain time," junior inside linebacker and defensive captain Amarlo Herrera said. "This year was kind of building us and molding us and kind of getting us ready for next year and preparing us for the possibility of getting there next year."
The Bulldogs were expected to dip defensively after Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, John Jenkins, Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings and Cornelius Washington were selected in the 2013 NFL draft. Clemson, South Carolina and LSU provided challenges to Georgia's revamped unit within the first four games, but Bulldogs defenders were able to do just enough to survive two of those three tests.
When the injuries began plaguing the offense, however, the defense could not make the crucial stops in midseason losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt. Georgia's rushing defense has allowed 33.6 fewer yards per game this season compared to a year ago, but the Bulldogs have allowed 57.2 more passing yards a game.
Georgia's defense has gathered just 14 turnovers this year after collecting 30 a season ago, and opponents have converted 41 percent of third downs into firsts after converting 37 percent last season.
"We got a lot of people in third-and-medium and third-and-long all year long," coach Mark Richt told reporters this week in Jacksonville, "but we didn't get them off the field. That's the biggest key for us."
The Bulldogs already have surrendered a program-record 353 points, topping the 337 that the 2009 team yielded in 13 games. Georgia's average of 29.4 points allowed per game is on track to be the worst in school history, surpassing the 26.6 allowed in 1990 and the 25.9 in '09.
Georgia's 381.2 yards allowed per game is the worst since the 1994 team yielded 394.1.
"When you look at our team, we basically had nine freshmen who played," fourth-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said before Christmas. "We've got six sophomores and six juniors, so 15 of our top 21 or 22 guys are going to be back for another two years. We've got a chance to get a lot better, and we're going to continue to work to do that.
"The more the guys play, the better they get, and any time you go from year one to year two, there is going to be a jump. Those guys who have gotten their feet wet and maybe thrown into the fire are going to be ready to do some things for us."
Senior tackle Garrison Smith is the only defensive starter the Bulldogs are expected to lose.
The area needing the most improvement will be the secondary, where cornerback Damian Swann and safety Corey Moore will be seniors. Four freshmen who have made starts this season, cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins and safeties Matthews and Quincy Mauger, will be another year older.
"Damian hasn't played as well as he had hoped this year, and he's hungry to finish strong and have a great senior year," Richt said. "We need him and Corey Moore. They are the obvious choices on the back end of our defense to provide leadership and take ownership of the group. We've had some young guys play a lot of downs for this year, but Damian and Corey are two guys that I feel comfortable are ready to lead the way next year."
The Gator Bowl will put an end to the difficult rebuilding project Georgia's defense has experienced, though others are viewing it differently.
"I think you have to look at this game as part of next season," Herrera said. "It's our first game of next season, really."
The Bulldogs held their final Gator Bowl workout Monday, practicing for 90 minutes. ... Junior receiver Chris Conley (ankle) was scheduled to practice, but his status for the game remains unknown. ... Langley and former Ridgeland standout Devin Bowman are competing for playing time due to the absence of Sheldon Dawson, who is suspended. ... Bruce Feldman of CBS reported Monday night that Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is expected to speak with Georgia Southern about its head-coaching vacancy following the Gator Bowl.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.