ATHENS, Ga. -- For all the ink spilled over the numerous defensive holes that Georgia had to fill before this season, perhaps no defense in the country suffered greater losses than LSU.
Just as Georgia had 12 key defensive players to replace this fall, LSU actually set an NFL draft record with six defensive players selected in the 2013 draft's first two days. And just as the Bulldogs have discovered, it has been difficult for LSU to pick up exactly where it left off without players like Barkevious Mingo, Kevin Minter, Eric Reid, Sam Montgomery, Tharold Simon and Bennie Logan.
So as No. 9 Georgia (2-1) and No. 6 LSU (4-0) prepare to meet on Saturday, they do so with young in places defenses that have delivered uneven results. Neither group lack potential, but they both have dealt with the understandable lapses that typically arise when new players take over for established stars.
“I think our players are as talented as we've ever had and I think there's a maturity that needs to take place so they can play with their cleats headed north and south and ready to make a tackle and show the style of confidence, if you will, that other defenses that have played in this uniform have shown,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think that's coming. I see it, in last week, better in certain spots and certainly that's got to continue.”
In Saturday's win against Auburn, Miles' Tigers could not have been more impressive early. They limited Auburn to just 41 yards of offense in the first quarter in jumping out to a quick 21-0 lead. However, Auburn made it a more competitive game -- LSU still won 35-21 -- by generating 333 yards in the second half and running a whopping 85 plays against a suddenly reeling LSU defense that was facing its first legitimate test.
“Everybody probably mentally may have gotten a little bit down. We had a couple of calls that were questionable, but we've got to be able to shrug that off,” LSU defensive end Jordan Allen said. “We have a couple things happening and not sure what's going on and we're not communicating on some things and we'll get it straight.”
LSU's early schedule was much more generous toward its defensive rebuilding effort than was Georgia's. The Tigers played TCU, UAB, Kent State and Auburn in the first four games, with only the TCU game -- it was held at the Dallas Cowboys' stadium in Arlington, Texas -- being played away from Tiger Stadium.
Their defensive statistics reflect that advantage, as LSU is tied for third in the SEC in total defense (310 yards per game), is second against the pass (173.8 ypg), seventh against the run (136.2) and fifth in scoring (19.5 points per game).
Because its first two opponents were top-10 teams with impressive skill talent, Georgia's defense looks much worse on paper. The Bulldogs are 13th in the league in scoring defense (29.7 ppg), 11th in total defense (388.7 ypg), eighth against the run (143.3) and ninth against the pass (245.3 ypg).
However, they actually enter the LSU game after their best performance yet. In Saturday's 45-21 win against North Texas, Georgia surrendered just 7 rushing yards and 245 total yards -- nearly 400 fewer than the Bulldogs' offense generated that afternoon. Further, the Mean Green scored just one offensive touchdown -- the other two came on special-teams plays -- and otherwise sputtered on offense .
“I feel like we really stepped up this game,” Georgia sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said. “We had the off week to kind of get everybody in the right spot or whatever, and I feel like we're really jelling together and really getting that chemistry that we're going to need next week against LSU.”
It was still far from a perfect effort, but Georgia has now allowed opponents to score just 13 points in their last 18 drives, dating back to halftime of the South Carolina game when the score was tied at 24-24 before the Bulldogs pulled away for a 41-30 win.
“You want to have confidence,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of his defense after the North Texas win. “I don't think this bunch is going to be overconfident after this game. I think they did begin to play well together and I think they can be proud of what happened. It was a very good performance. But LSU's a good team, and we want them as confident as possible, but we don't want them to think they've arrived, that's for sure, because we've got a long way to go.”
Miles' coaching staff can certainly empathize with that sentiment, particularly as it prepares to face a Georgia team that ranks sixth nationally in total offense at 574 ypg -- in the Tigers' first true road game of the season, no less.
Inconsistency has characterized both defenses over the first month of the season, but they realize that excuses over inexperience have nearly lost their shelf life. The defense that is better at minimizing its mistakes on Saturday will almost certainly win what should be one of the most impactful games either team will play this fall.