ATHENS — Mark Richt opened his weekly news conference Tuesday waxing eloquent about the tremendous achievements of the team the Georgia Bulldogs will face Saturday in the SEC Championship game.
He pointed out that Alabama has won 59 games the last five years, the most in SEC history, and 48 the last four, one short of the NCAA record. A win over the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs on Saturday would tie that record and another one — which would have to come in the BCS national championship — would break the national mark. That national title, by the way, would be the Crimson Tide’s third in the past four years.
“We’re just at a time where they’re dominating college football, really,” Richt told a larger-than-usual crowd of media at the Bulldogs’ football complex on Tuesday. “So we have a lot of respect for them obviously.”
It would appear Richt’s flattery extends beyond the lectern and into the Bulldogs locker room. Though Richt insists “it’s probably more coincidence” than emulation, the on-field similarities of the two teams facing off Saturday at the Georgia Dome are remarkable.
Each team utilizes a 3-4 defensive scheme laden with NFL prospects and playing with reckless abandon. Each team boasts a pair of explosive tailbacks capable of breaking long runs on any down. And both teams run pro-style offenses with quarterbacks operating at incredibly high rates of efficiency.
Georgia junior quarterback Aaron Murray leads the nation in pass efficiency with a rating of 177.15. Right behind him at No. 2 is Alabama junior A.J. McCarron (176.26).
“Philosophically, there’s a lot of similarities in how they try to win with balance, taking care of the ball, playing with a lot of physical toughness on both sides of the ball,” Nick Saban said of Georgia. “They try to put their players in the right position. There’s not a whole lot of tricks and gimmicks with us or them in terms of trying to win with execution… . That’s just philosophically what we believe in. I think they must believe in the same things.”
Of course, Richt and Saban have both been head coaches for a long time – 12 and 17 years, respectively — and each has deep-seated fundamental beliefs when it comes to playing football.
Richt brought his offensive philosophy with him to Georgia from Florida State, where he served as quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for 10 years. While he has flirted with different forms of the spread offense, primarily he runs a basic I-formation, pro-style attack that utilizes a strong running game and generates a vertical passing game off play-action fakes.
“We really haven’t changed much offensively,” Richt said. “We actually do a lot more up-tempo stuff now. I don’t think Alabama is really interested in trying to go up-tempo. The pro-style attack is really what we’ve been doing for a while.”
Saban, a longtime defensive coordinator and secondary coach, has always utilized a pro-style, 3-4 defense that features multiple blitz schemes with tight man-to-man coverage in the secondary. It has been meticulously refined during his tenures at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and at Alabama.
It is on defense where the Bulldogs have undergone their greatest transformation to looking like Alabama. Todd Grantham, the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator of the last three seasons, worked for Saban as defensive line coach and assistant head coach at Michigan State in the late 1990s. Grantham then worked as an NFL assistant for 11 seasons before joining Richt’s staff in 2010.
Grantham brought the 3-4 defense and considerable Saban influence with him to Athens.
“He’s had a lot of influence on my career,” said Grantham, who was hired away from his alma materof Virginia Tech by Saban. “He allowed me to launch my career and have some of success. Our preparation and a lot of things we do here philosophically is from my time with him. Systematically our roots or very similar, or the same as. You tweak things and bring in your own personality, but there are a lot of similar characteristics that we do.”
Saban speaks highly of his former protege.
“If you’re going to rank assistants, he’s one of the two or three best I’ve ever had on our staff,” he said. “Did a phenomenal job for us. I certainly have a lot of respect for what he’s done at Georgia.”
Georgia’s 2012 defense looks a lot like the ones Saban has used to win two of the last three BCS championships. The Bulldogs feature an All-American outside linebacker making big plays off the edge in Jarvis Jones, inside linebacker Alec Ogletree is a tackling machine much like Rolando McClain was in 2009 and noseguard John Jenkins drew a comparison to Terrance Cody from Saban himself.
“I heard about that,” Jenkins said on Tuesday. “For Nick Saban to give me that type of compliment is a big deal. It’s almost an honor, because Nick Saban is very respected in the college football world.”
Georgia’s defense has a ways to go to catch Alabama on the field. The Crimson Tide comes into Saturday’s game leading the nation in total defense (233.67 ypg) and scoring defense (9.25) and ranked No. 2 against the rush (77 ypg) and No. 3 against the pass (156.67). Georgia is 22nd and 16th, respectively, in total defense (337.83) and scoring defense (17.67), 67th against the run (163.42) and ninth against the pass (174.42). But the Bulldogs have played much better in the season’s second half. They’ve allowed just 8.6 points a game over the last five, dating back to their win over then-No. 2 Florida.
“I love this defense, actually,” said Jones, who leads the Bulldogs with 10.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. “I think it’s one of the best defenses and a lot of the teams play it. Alabama plays the same defense, and they’re dominant in it as well.”
Richt is hoping the Bulldogs continue to look more like Alabama, particularly in the achievement category.
“There are a lot of similarities,” he said. “One thing they’ve done is they’ve been national champions and we’ve not. They’ve been SEC champions and we’ve not during the time frame of these kids’ careers. That’s the biggest difference I see right now.”
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