Georgia second-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and his newly installed 3-4 defense was maligned by Bulldog fans after last season’s 6-7 record, but those same critics are now believers after the Bulldogs — thanks in large part to their defense, which is ranked fourth in the nation — have reeled off 10 wins in a row to clinch the SEC East title and a spot in this weekend’s conference title game in Atlanta against LSU.
ATHENS -- Sanders Commings wants everyone to take notice of Georgia's defense.
If that means taking a shot at No. 1 LSU, the more touted team the Bulldogs will be facing Saturday in the Southeastern Conference championship game, so be it.
"Our defense, I think, is better than theirs," said Commings, a junior cornerback for No. 12 Georgia. "I think we have better players, a better coach. The way we're playing right now, I don't think anybody can run on us or throw on us."
WHO: No. 12 Georgia (10-2) vs. No. 1 LSU (12-0).
WHAT: SEC Championship game.
WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday.
RADIO: WGPC-AM 1450 or WJAD-FM 103.5.
LINE: Tigers by 13 1/2 points.
LSU and No. 2 Alabama have drawn most of the attention for their defensive units, with good reason. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in all four major categories, while the Tigers are right on their heels in the two that matter most: points and total yards allowed.
Then there's Georgia, which is no slouch when the other team has the ball. The Bulldogs are also prominent in the national rankings, spurring the team to a 10-game winning streak and into the SEC title game for the first time since 2005.
LSU (12-0) is a heavy favorite -- 13 1/2 points at last check -- but Georgia (10-2) figures to have a fighting chance because of a group that has blossomed in its second year under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
"We respect them. They are the best team in the country," Commings said. "But we don't fear anybody. We feel we can stop anybody."
LSU, which is trying to lock up a spot in the BCS title game (and might get in even with a loss to the Bulldogs), shrugged off Commings' brash comments.
"We've been hearing it all season," defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. "We're not a talking team. We let teams talk and say what they've got to say but when you get in the jungle, when you get on the field, there's no more talking. That's how we play our game, and Saturday we'll play LSU football."
The Tigers don't do anything fancy on either side of the line, but their defense is relentless to the ball, has an abundance of depth and can make a very strong case for having the best secondary in the country.
Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has gotten most of the attention, a fearless player with a catchy nickname ("Honey Badger") and the statistics to back up the hype. Just 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, he creates all sorts of mayhem with his blitzes off the edge, leading the team in tackles, causing six fumbles and recovering four of them. He also has a pair of interceptions and has broken up seven passes.
But don't forget the other corner, junior Morris Claiborne, who has five interceptions and is probably LSU's best coverage back. Coordinator John Chavis is more than willing to leave those guys in man-to-man coverage, allowing a safety to edge up closer to the line to help stop the run.
Georgia will counter with one of the nation's most accomplished quarterbacks. Third-year sophomore Aaron Murray has already set a school record with 32 touchdown passes, and he's got a wealth of potential receivers. Eighteen players have caught passes. A dozen have scored at least one TD.
The Bulldogs know they're facing a dominant secondary, but they don't intend to rein in the passing game.
"It's going to be a little scary," said Michael Bennett, a redshirt freshman and among a group of promising young Georgia receivers that also includes true freshmen Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley. "But I think we're up to the challenge."
Georgia's defense has certainly been up to the challenge, ranking in the Top 10 in points allowed (17.8), rushing yards (94.8) and total defense (271.1 yards).
In Grantham's first season, the Bulldogs looked a little lost trying to adjust to the 3-4 scheme. Now, it's second nature. Plus, they have the massive noseguards required to make the entire scheme work, pairing junior-college signee John Jenkins (351 pounds) with emerging sophomore Kwame Geathers (350 pounds).
With those two clogging the middle, players such as outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Bacarri Rambo of Donalsonville have blossomed into stars. Jones has spent so much time in the other team's backfield (11.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles behind the line), he could qualify as a two-way player. The ball-hawk Rambo has seven interceptions.
Suddenly, the Junkyards Dawgs are back in the game -- and eager to prove they're for real against the nation's top-ranked team.
"This is a great opportunity to show the country what Georgia's defense is about," linebacker Mike Gilliard said. "We have really good players that I trust. I trust all those guys on the field with me."
The Tigers have already made their mark, beating three teams ranked among the top eight by The Associated Press along with No. 22 West Virginia.
Eighth-ranked Oregon was held to 335 yards -- nearly 200 below its season average -- even while throwing 54 passes. West Virginia put up the most yards on the Tigers (533), but the Mountaineers were playing from behind most of the night and went to the air a staggering 65 times, padding their numbers with mere volume. A week ago, No. 6 Arkansas raced to a quick 14-0 lead (one of the scores was a defensive TD), but the high-scoring Razorbacks were held to a field goal during the final 42 minutes.
Of course, LSU's defensive masterpiece came in its 1-2 showdown against Alabama. Neither defense allowed a touchdown, even in overtime, and the Tigers escaped Tuscaloosa with a 9-6 victory that put them in control of the national race.
This is a defense that doesn't just stop the other team; it has a knack for coming up with momentum-changing plays. Safety Eric Reid had a huge interception against the Crimson Tide, snatching the ball away from a bigger player at the goal line. Reserve cornerback and occasional starter Ron Brooks has returned two picks for touchdowns. Even the 306-pound Brockers has an interception.
"I feel like we've done a good job proving how good we are this season, and we need to execute this weekend and prove it again," linebacker Kevin Minter said. "We preach gang-tackling and running to the ball, and our attitude, we have a lot of confidence in each other, in our talent. We have just a swagger to us."
No need for any talk.