Georgia’s defense gets second chance to prove itself in SEC championship

Georgia may be playing its most impressive stretch of defense under third-year coordinator Todd Grantham heading into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship game, but its best half still came a year ago in the Georgia Dome.

Georgia's defense gets second chance to prove itself in SEC championship
Marc Weiszer

“Yeah, I’d say so, the first half of that game last year,” senior cornerback Sanders Commings said. “The second half is probably the worst.”

Georgia limited top-ranked LSU to no first downs, 12 total yards and seven three-and-outs in the first half of the SEC title game.

The Tigers still came roaring back for a 42-10 victory fueled by momentum-changing returns from Tyrann Matheiu.

“We came out, had a great first half, and didn’t finish like we wanted to,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “That’s been dwelling on our minds since then.”

Nine of Georgia’s 11 defensive starters from that game remain. Only cornerback Brandon Boykin (now in the NFL) and Abry Jones (out with an ankle injury) won’t suit up for the No. 3 Bulldogs Saturday against No. 2 Alabama.

“This team is way more confident and has way more swagger than last year,” said cornerback Damian Swann, who stepped into Boykin’s role in the secondary. “That’s what’s going to help us in the challenge this weekend. We’ve got to go out and play like we’re the best team on the field.”

Despite a first half of the season in which it didn’t live up to its own expectations as it dealt with the suspension of four starters, Georgia’s defense is giving up 17.7 points per game, ahead of the 17.8 last year heading into the title game and 8.0 in the last three games compared to 11.3 in the final three of last season.

Like last year, the Bulldogs aren’t shy about saying they think they stack up or are better than their higher-ranked opponent, or any team for that matter.

“I think we’re the best defense in the country,” Commings said. “I thought we were last year. … There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be a top defense. Everybody that plays on this defense thinks we are.”

Said linebacker Amarlo Herrera: “I just think we feel more confident going into this game because we had a great year. We’ve been together for a longer amount of time playing together.”

Cornerback Damian Swann touted a seasoned secondary with four seniors — led by safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams — and himself, a sophomore.

“We’ve got a lot of guys that have played a lot of football,” Swann said. “They know what they’re going up against.”

Georgia hopes that kind of experience will pay off if there’s a big momentum swing like last year after Georgia led 10-0. LSU got a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown as it scored 42 straight points and took advantage of Georgia turnovers.

“I really just think we came out for whatever reason flat in the second half,” Commings said. “We weren’t as amped up as we were in the first half. LSU took advantage of it. It was a good learning experience for us going back to the game this year. We’ve just got to be ready to play a complete game.”

Said Herrera: “You know what to expect and you know to try to control your emotions. Don’t let your emotions overwhelm you. That’s what happened to us last year. We played in probably a few big games, but no big game like the SEC championship last year. … We know how the atmosphere feels, we know what type of game it is, we know how much it means now.”

Georgia’s defense has played its best ball since Williams called out his teammates as “soft.” Now it gets a chance to show it on the biggest stage any of the players have been a part of as this year’s game all but guarantees a a spot in the national title game on the line.

“I think we got a couple distractions, couple guys suspended, and people expecting so much out of us,” linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “You’re hearing this, you’re hearing that. And I think it took that to get us back to where we are today. Things happened. I think we’re playing great ball right now. Guys are focused, and we’re making plays and enjoying our season.”

They will enjoy it even more if the Bulldogs can leave the Georgia Dome this time with the championship.

Grantham’s defense will go up against a team coached by Nick Saban, who greatly influenced him in defensive philosophy when they worked together at Michigan State from 1996-98.

“I think that this one is big for us and especially for him,” Robinson said. “Coach Grantham is a very competitive guy. He takes everything really personally. Everything we do in the meeting room, in the practice field, whether it’s a rep against an offensive lineman where one of his outside linebackers is practicing. Even at this bigger level, coach to coach, I think it’s a huge match‑up for him, and it will be a test of how far we’ve come under him.”

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