When last they met, Georgia and LSU mustered 90 points and 950 yards between them. When the offseason arrived, LSU coach Les Miles decided his defense was substandard and dumped his co-cordinators for John Chavis, the top free agent on the market. Georgia’s Mark Richt elevated John Jancek to co-coordinator but left Willie Martinez essentially at the tiller.
The teams meet again Saturday in Athens, and neither defense has been great. LSU surrendered 23 points to Washington, which seemed pretty shoddy until the Huskies up and beat Southern Cal, and 26 to Mississippi State and needed a goal-line stand to escape. Georgia did OK against Oklahoma State and Arizona State but yielded 37 points to South Carolina and 41 to Arkansas.
LSU ranks 49th nationally in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense; Georgia ranks 67th and 95th. The key difference: The Tigers are tied for fifth in turnover margin, having intercepted seven passes and recovered three fumbles; Georgia is 115th, having intercepted two passes and recovered one fumble. (Neither team has done much sacking: Each has five in four games.)
Here’s the difference: LSU’s defense stands to improve under Chavis, who was known as the Chief when he worked at Tennessee and whom former Vol coach Johnny Majors famously credited with saving Phillip Fulmer’s “job for the last 10 years.” Chavis has two SEC titles and a national championship on his coordinating resume.
Martinez, by way of contrast, has one SEC title as coordinator, that taken in 2005, the first season after Brian VanGorder left Athens. The years since have seen Georgia become less forceful on defense, which makes no sense when you espy the talent the Bulldogs keep attracting. (The LSU game of 2008, which Georgia won 52-38, was actually as assertive as Martinez’s men have been — linebacker Darryl Gamble returned two interceptions for touchdowns.)
But the belief in this space is that Chavis will instill the ethic of tenacity a big-time program must have. The belief is also that Martinez’s defense is based on the backpedal. Granted, Georgia held Arizona State to 204 yards and one offensive touchdown, but ASU might finish fifth (or worse) in the SEC East. There’s a higher standard in this conference, and Chavis has proved he can meet it.
This doesn’t mean LSU will beat Georgia on Saturday. (I picked LSU to win 24-23 a while back.) The Tigers’ offense is awful statistically (105th nationally) and the game is in Athens. And these Bulldogs are developing a knack for winning close. Over the longer haul, though, the program with the Chief in charge of its defense figures to be in good hands. Can’t say the same about the other team. At least I can’t.
The Georgia defense under Martinez is trending downward. Over the past 10 games, opponents have averaged — averaged — 31.4 points. In 42 games under Brian VanGorder, Martinez’s predecessor, only once did the Bulldogs yield 30 points in a game. (And that was in the 2003 SEC championship game against an LSU team that would win the BCS title.)
It must be said: Steve Spurrier needed seven seasons to win a national championship at Florida, and he did it only after hiring Bob Stoops to run his defense; it took Mack Brown eight seasons to win one at Texas, and he did it only after importing Gene Chizik as coordinator.
Last winter Les Miles, who already has a BCS title in his portfolio, moved to hire Chavis. Mark Richt, who’s in his ninth season and who hasn’t yet played for the national championship, claimed his coaching staff might have done its finest job in 2008 despite losing three games in which the opponent scored 40-plus points each time. And Willie Martinez got a raise.