NCF Nation: Willie Martinez
“When we go to recruit a guy, the first thing I ask is, 'Can we beat Florida with this guy?' Because if you beat Florida, your chance of winning the SEC East got a whole lot better,” Grantham said after Saturday's 23-20 win over Florida extended Georgia's series winning streak to three games.
Dating back to 1990, Florida had won 17 out of 20 games against Georgia when Grantham arrived and seven of nine since Richt took over in 2001. And in the last two games in the series that Willie Martinez served as Georgia's defensive coordinator, Florida's 2008 and 2009 teams beat Georgia by a combined 90-27 margin.
The common theme in each of Georgia's three straight series wins, however? Grantham's defense made big plays when it mattered most and kept Florida out of the end zone. Although they did not turn the ball over on Saturday, the Gators totaled eight turnovers in the teams' previous two meetings, and they have scored just three offensive touchdowns in the last three meetings in Jacksonville.
“Like I said when I first came here, I think I understand who the fans want to beat when you're playing here, and I know that Florida's one of the teams that they want to beat,” Grantham said. “So that's why we make it a big game with our players. I think that's one of the reasons that we've had guys step up, meaning Jarvis [Jones] two years ago, Corey Moore made a play today. I've seen Damian Swann make a play, Amarlo [Herrera], Ramik [Wilson] – a lot of guys made some plays, but they know it's time to man up and go play.”
Perhaps the biggest defensive play of Saturday's win came midway through the fourth quarter, when Grantham decided to blitz safety Moore when Florida faced third-and-12 against the reeling Bulldogs. Moore tracked down Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy and sacked him for a 14-yard loss at the Florida 43-yard line. That forced the Gators to punt, and Georgia's offense was able to run out the clock on the ensuing possession and protect its narrow advantage.
“I really almost said to Coach Grantham, 'Go sic em. Go get em,' ” Richt said. “When I'm saying that, I'm saying, 'Bring the house. Bring more than they can block. Play man coverage with no safety help and let's just see what the heck happens.' Something big's going to happen one way or the other and I held my tongue on it, and he called the blitz. And I'm like, 'I'm with you 100 percent,' and I really was.”
Maybe that was a glimmer of hope for Grantham's young defenders. Earlier in the season, maybe they would not have successfully made that play. He pointed to the overtime win against Tennessee, where the Bulldogs were unable to slow down the Volunteers as they mounted a second-half rally, as a time when his defense wasn't tough enough.
“The other team's going to make plays and they're going to do things,” Grantham said. “But when that happens, you've got to have the mental toughness and the maturity to go put the fire out, and we preach to our guys all the time about, 'This is what you live for. Seize the moment. Enjoy the opportunity. Go make a play.' ”
Believe it or not -- and the fourth-year coordinator's detractors within Georgia's fan base will likely be stunned by this revelation -- Georgia has held all but one opponent (Tennessee) below its season average for total offense. And after yielding 400-plus yards in four of the first five games, the Bulldogs have held their last three opponents below the 400-yard mark and to an average of 68.5 yards per game below their season averages.
They're dead last in the SEC in scoring defense (31.6 ppg), however, in part because of frequent special-teams meltdowns and offensive mistakes deep in Georgia territory.
Georgia ranks 112th nationally and last in the SEC in opponent yards per point -- a statistic that divides the number of points a team allows by the yardage its opponent covered to score. The five teams that rank immediately behind Georgia's average (12.1) on that list have a combined 7-35 record this season: Cal (1-8), Colorado (3-5), Idaho (1-8), UTEP (1-7) and Iowa State (1-7).
Of course, Georgia's defense could always have made more stops after being placed in those bad positions. And the Bulldogs certainly could stand to become more effective on third down (they're 12th in the SEC, allowing opponents to convert 42.5 percent of the time).
But little by little, Grantham's defense is beginning to show some promise -- and perhaps Moore's sack is another sign that the light is flipping on for Georgia's defenders who lacked on-field experience when the season began.
“Part of the job as a coordinator is you've got to be aggressive in those situations and let the players go win the game,” Grantham said. “Individual performance wins the game. We put them in one-on-one matchups on that. We were in one-on-one matchups in coverage, we were in one-on-one matchups up front and the guys executed the call and we stopped them. ... In my mind, you want to end the game. That's what I wanted to do was end the game right there."
Former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, who helped lead the Vols to the 1998 national championship, was in Knoxville on Monday to meet with Jones. Martin spent the 2012 season on Lane Kiffin's staff at USC as the Trojans' receivers coach. He was at Kentucky prior to that for two seasons as receivers coach and was the Wildcats' passing game coordinator in 2011.
Martin's ability to sell Tennessee's program to recruits would be invaluable for Jones as he takes on the challenge of recruiting in the SEC. Martin has strong ties in the Atlanta area as well as the entire state of Tennessee and his hometown of Mobile, Ala. Martin was the point man in getting top cornerback prospect Jalen Ramsey of Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy to commit to USC earlier this year.
Martin isn't the only former Vol that Jones wants on his staff. Jay Graham has agreed to remain as the running backs coach. He held that same title this past season under Derek Dooley and was an All-SEC running back for the Vols in 1995 and 1996. Graham, too, has proven to be a very effective recruiter. He helped lure Marcus Lattimore to South Carolina while coaching the Gamecocks' running backs prior to returning to his alma mater.
Jones plans to add two members of Auburn's defensive staff from this past season -- secondary coach Willie Martinez and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. Martinez was the defensive coordinator at Georgia from 2005-09 and was with Mark Richt at Georgia from 2001-09 before getting fired following the 2009 season. Thigpen was on Auburn's staff all four seasons under Gene Chizik and was at North Carolina prior to that.
Jones will also bring several of his assistants from Cincinnati, including offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian and defensive coordinator John Jancek, who coached linebackers under Martinez at Georgia and was the Bulldogs' co-defensive coordinator in 2009.
Three others Jones plans to bring with him from Cincinnati are offensive line coach Don Mahoney, defensive line coach Steve Stripling and tight ends/special teams coach Mark Elder.
Oklahoma announced the hiring in a release Friday. Stoops will serve as co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach along with Brent Venables. OU also announced that secondary coach Willie Martinez has resigned.
“Mike and Brent were out the door recruiting together within two hours of Mike’s hiring so we’re off to a good start,” coach Bob Stoops said in a statement. “Mike and Brent have a long history and comfort level working together, and have together led some great defenses.”
Clemson reportedly has made a push to hire Venables to be its defensive coordinator. The Tigers fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele this week.
OU hasn’t announced yet whether Venables or Mike Stoops will call the plays.
If Venables stays, he and Mike Stoops will be co-coordinators for the second time in their careers. The two coordinated the OU defense from 1999-03 until Stoops took the head job at Arizona. Mike Stoops was fired from that job after the Wildcats got off to a 1-5 start this season.
“We feel very fortunate to have Mike on our staff. Over the past few months, because of the reputation he has built among his peers, he was a highly sought-after coach,” Bob Stoops said. “People across the country recognize his tremendous knowledge of the game and great energy. He will have a very positive impact on our program.”
Bob Stoops said that Martinez will pursue “attractive options” at other schools.
“I appreciate all of Willie’s work here,” Bob Stoops said. “He represented our program in the right way and will continue to do well in our profession.”
Willie Martinez, an assistant who coached the defensive backs, is leaving the staff.
Stoops was the coach at Arizona from 2004 to 2011, going 41-50 overall, 27-38 in the Pac-12.
Stoops took the Wildcats to three consecutive bowls before being released after a 1-5 start this past season.
This move's been long-rumored, and the rumors peaked when Stoops showed up on Oklahoma's sideline in its win against Iowa in the Insight Bowl.
Bob Stoops had said he would welcome working with his brother again, but that there wasn't a spot available on the staff.
With Martinez's departure soon, it looks like there will be a spot for Stoops to join. He was on Stoops' staff from 1999-2003, helping the Sooners win the 2000 national championship.
As usual, it was a revolving door this past offseason. In fact, Auburn was the only school in the league that didn’t have any staff turnover. The final number of head coaches or assistants departing for various reasons was 31.
Some were fired. Others got better gigs, while there were a few that were swayed elsewhere (within the conference) for more money.
Here’s an Eastern Division breakdown of who’s out and who’s in for the 2010 season. We'll do the Western Division a little bit later:
Who’s out: Associate head coach/defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, defensive coordinator George Edwards, recruiting coordinator/receivers coach Billy Gonzales, cornerbacks coach Vance Bedford and running backs coach Kenny Carter.
Who’s in: Teryl Austin, who spent the last seven seasons as the Arizona Cardinals’ defensive backs coach, is Florida’s new defensive coordinator. He replaces George Edwards, who held the job for less than a month before going back to the NFL with the Buffalo Bills. Edwards replaced Charlie Strong, who left following the season to take the Louisville head job. Stan Drayton returns to coach running backs. He was at Florida earlier this decade before moving on to Tennessee and most recently Syracuse. D.J. Durkin will coach defensive ends and special teams after spending the last three seasons at Stanford. Zach Azzanni will coach receivers. He was previously the assistant head coach/receivers coach at Central Michigan.
Who’s out: Defensive coordinator/secondary coach Willie Martinez, co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach John Jancek and defensive ends coach Jon Fabris.
Who’s in: Former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator Todd Grantham takes over as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. He was the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive line coach the last two seasons. Scott Lakatos will coach the defensive backs after spending the last six seasons on the Connecticut staff, and Warren Belin will coach linebackers after spending the last eight seasons on the Vanderbilt staff.
Who’s out: Head coach Rich Brooks, offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins and defensive line coach Rick Petri.
Who’s in: Joker Phillips, who was already the Wildcats’ coach-in-waiting, takes over the head-coaching reins. Mike Summers will coach the offensive line after serving as assistant head coach/offensive line coach at Arkansas the last two seasons. Former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin will coach the receivers. Martin was the quarterbacks coach at New Mexico last season. David Turner, who has coached at four different SEC schools, will coach the defensive line. Turner was at Mississippi State the last three seasons.
Who’s out: Offensive line coach/running game coordinator Eric Wolford.
Who’s in: Shawn Elliott replaces Wolford, who left to take the head coaching job at Youngstown State. Elliott has spent his entire coaching career at Appalachian State, including the last nine seasons as offensive line coach.
Who’s out: Head coach Lane Kiffin, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, quarterbacks coach David Reaves, receivers coach Frank Wilson, offensive line coach James Cregg, running backs coach/special teams coordinator Eddie Gran and defensive backs coach Willie Mack Garza.
Who’s in: Derek Dooley was hired as the Vols’ head coach after Lane Kiffin left to take the Southern California head job. Justin Wilcox comes over from Boise State to be the defensive coordinator. Charlie Baggett will serve as assistant head coach and coach the receivers. He has 11 years of NFL experience and was on the St. Louis Rams’ staff last season. Harry Hiestand will coach the offensive line. He was the offensive line coach for the Chicago Bears the past five seasons. Darin Hinshaw will coach quarterbacks. He was the receivers coach at Memphis the past three seasons. Terry Joseph will coach the secondary and special tams. He was with Dooley at Louisiana Tech. Eric Russell will coach tight ends and coordinate special teams. He was also at Louisiana Tech with Dooley. Former Tennessee All-SEC performer Chuck Smith will coach the defensive line. He worked as an assistant defensive line coach with the New York Jets last season and has also tutored several defensive linemen over the years. He played professionally for the Atlanta Falcons.
Who’s out: Linebackers coach/special teams coordinator Warren Belin.
Who’s in: Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson is still working to replace Belin, who left to join the Georgia staff. Johnson promoted Jimmy Kiser to offensive coordinator, and Kiser will call all of the Commodores’ plays this season. Ted Cain remains on staff as the tight ends coach and special teams coordinator.
Dec. 28, 5 p.m., (ESPN2)
Texas A&M take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: One of the most intriguing and potentially entertaining games involving a Big 12 team will involve Texas A&M, whose offensive growth helped push them to their first bowl game under Mike Sherman.
The biggest reason was quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who threw for a school-record 3,217 yards and led the Big 12 with 28 touchdown passes against only six interceptions. The Aggies also have a lot of offensive weapons with emerging receivers Jeff Fuller and Uzoma Nwachukwu, Big 12 Freshman of the Year running back Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray. They will be facing a Georgia defense that struggled so much that it’s already led to the firing of coordinator of Willie Martinez and two other defensive assistants. The Bulldogs rank 30th nationally in total defense but were lit up for 23 touchdown passes and ranked 119th nationally in turnover margin after recovering only two fumbles all season.
Georgia quarterback Joe Cox and wide receiver A.J. Green are one of the SEC’s most productive passing duos and will be a difficult test for an A&M defense that allowed at least 47 points in four games and ranked last in the Big 12 in every major pass-defense statistic.
But with both offenses being so proficient, the first team to 50 points might win this game.
Georgia take by SEC blogger Chris Low:Georgia’s 13th consecutive bowl trip probably seems a little hollow. This is not what anybody in Athens wanted or expected, as evidenced by Mark Richt’s firing of three of his defensive assistants last week.
The only defensive assistant remaining is tackles coach Rodney Garner. Richt said about 99 percent of his time will be spent on the defensive end of the field this month in practice, as none of the fired assistants chose to hang around for the bowl game. For the second straight year, the Bulldogs struggled to stop anybody. They’ve given up 37 or more points nine times in the past two seasons, which is the reason Willie Martinez, John Jancek and Jon Fabris weren’t retained.
Despite the disappointment this season, Georgia at least goes into its bowl matchup with Texas A&M with a little momentum. The Bulldogs knocked off then No. 7 Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale thanks to their best all-around performance of the season.
Georgia beat itself more times than not this season. The Bulldogs were last in the SEC with 99 penalties, which was also a problem in 2008, and they’re 119th out of 120 teams nationally in turnover margin.
Freshman running back Washaun Ealey was a bright spot during the latter part of the season, and star receiver A.J. Green should also be back for the bowl game after missing the last two games with an injured shoulder.
Consider this: Not quite two years ago, Georgia lambasted Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl, soaring to second in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll for 2007 and whetting the appetite for what would come next in Bulldog Land.
Sure enough, the Bulldogs started that next season No. 1 in the polls with a roster full of NFL talent.
Nobody could have ever guessed in which direction.
Since that Sugar Bowl win, Georgia is just 16-8 and is coming off its first home loss to Kentucky in 32 years.
The Bulldogs (6-5, 4-4 SEC) are in danger of having their first non-winning regular season since 1996, Jim Donnan’s first season in Athens.
In games against their biggest rivals and historically elite teams in this league (Alabama, Florida, Georgia Tech, LSU and Tennessee), they’re just 2-6 the past two seasons.
That record will slip to 2-7 unless they knock off No. 7 Georgia Tech on Saturday in Atlanta.
And in 10 of their last 20 games dating to last season, the Bulldogs have allowed 30 or more points.
“I think all programs go through some cycles, and we’ve been on a pretty good upswing for quite some time,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who’s won 10 or more games in six of his eight seasons in Athens. “This year has certainly been a downturn when it comes to record. It is what it is.
“Will we get it back on track and get back to the winning ways we’re used to? I think so. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”
Richt has been too good of a coach to think that he can’t get the Bulldogs out of this funk.
But clearly there will have to be changes. Georgia is continuing to recruit at a high level, which is all the more maddening for Bulldogs fans.
The only thing more maddening is how penalty-prone Georgia has been the past two years and how many crippling mistakes the Bulldogs have made to cost them games. They turned the ball over four times in the second half against Kentucky.
The first thing Richt has to do is take a long look at himself to make sure his approach is working. The penalties and turnovers would suggest that something’s just not getting through.
The next move is looking at his staff, and there will almost certainly be some staff changes. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez has been a target of the fans for the past few years. He and Richt are extremely close, too.
But given Georgia’s struggles on defense, Richt’s going to be hard-pressed to keep Martinez as his defensive coordinator.
The best move Richt could make is figuring out a way to knock off the Yellow Jackets, who rushed for 409 yards in a 45-42 win over the Bulldogs last season.
One win wouldn’t make a season, and it probably wouldn’t be enough to keep Richt’s staff intact.
But it sure would go a long way toward easing some of the pain and helping to fight off some of the negativity heading into the bowl season and the rest of the recruiting period.
As we've seen, it can turn quickly in this league.
In the spirit of Halloween, here’s a different kind of look at the SEC:
|Doug Benc/Getty Images|
|Beware The Swamp, which has been a house of horrors for opposing teams lately.|
Cursed: The dreaded Chicken Curse has haunted South Carolina ever since the Gamecocks started playing football more than 100 years ago. Legend has it that they’ve been doomed to mediocrity. Only twice in school history have they ever won more than eight games. And in their best season, which saw them start out 9-0 and go to No. 2 in the polls in 1984, they somehow managed to lose to Navy.
Monster Mash: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow is still picking out the cobwebs after being leveled in the pocket by Kentucky defensive end Taylor Wyndham on Sept. 26. The whole scene was scary. Tebow, who on the way down hit his head on the leg of one of his linemen, lay motionless on the turf for what seemed like an eternity before being helped up and taken to the hospital. He suffered a concussion, but came back and played two weeks later against LSU.
Boo (Boo): Alabama sophomore linebacker Dont’a Hightower, one of the most versatile defenders on the Crimson Tide’s team, suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arkansas on Sept. 26. He tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee and underwent reconstructive surgery. He hopes to be back in full by the start of preseason practice next August.
Night of the living dead: Ole Miss is getting good at this second life stuff. The Rebels won their last six games a year ago and look like they might be finding a second life again this season after a disappointing start. They’ve won their last two games in impressive fashion and will try to make it three in a row this weekend at Auburn.
Scary Movie: If you’re looking for one of those slasher movies that makes you sick, Tennessee would probably “volunteer” the last four seconds of its Alabama game. The Vols were on the cusp of pulling off the upset of the season, but Alabama’s Terrence Cody had other plans when he bulled his way through and blocked Daniel Lincoln’s 44-yard field goal attempt as time expired to preserve the Crimson Tide’s 12-10 victory.
Jack-o-lantern: Auburn quarterback Chris Todd could use a light going off in his head, and for that matter, so could the entire Auburn offense after a brutal last three weeks. The Tigers started the season as one of the most balanced offenses in the league. They’ve looked like one of the worst during their three-game losing streak.
Nightmare on Broad Street: It’s been a nightmarish season and a half for Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who’s really feeling the heat. The Bulldogs have given up 37 or more points in eight of their last 16 games. They desperately need a good defensive performance Saturday against Florida.
Ghosts, Goblins and Ghouls: Among those SEC players you wouldn’t want on your bad side and certainly wouldn’t want to meet up with in a dark alley include Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes, Mississippi State defensive end Pernell McPhee, Arkansas defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard, Auburn offensive tackle Lee Ziemba and Kentucky linebacker Micah Johnson.
Favorite costumes: Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain/Darth Vader; Florida quarterback Tim Tebow/Superman (way too easy); LSU running back Trindon Holliday/Speedy Gonzalez; South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier/Happy Gilmore and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin/Eddie Haskell.
If you didn’t know better, you’d think Florida and Georgia went out and handpicked each other for this weekend’s game.
|Rick Dole/Getty Images|
|Urban Meyer says the Gators are working on their red zone offense.|
The Gators haven’t been able to throw the ball this season, and the Bulldogs haven’t been able to stop anybody from throwing the ball this season.
It’s a match made in football heaven, or more precisely, perhaps a chance for both Florida’s offense and Georgia’s defense to get healthy at just the right time.
Who’s going to flinch first?
The Gators are 80th nationally in passing offense. Tim Tebow is ninth in the SEC in passing average and is coming off one of the worst games of his career. He threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in the 29-19 win over Mississippi State.
As much as anything, it appears Tebow only has confidence in a few guys, namely tight end Aaron Hernandez and receiver Riley Cooper. He's also getting a lot more pressure than he did a year ago and has been sacked nine times in his last two games.
Compounding the problem has been Florida’s woes in the red zone. In SEC games this season, the Gators have scored just seven touchdowns in 25 attempts in the red zone. They’ve scored touchdowns on just two of their last 15 trips inside the 20-yard line.
“I’m not going to lie to you and say it's not frustrating because we want to score every time we’re in the red zone, and turnovers are frustrating,” Tebow said. “It’s just things we’re not used to doing. That’s frustrating. We’re working on it. It could be a good thing because it could give us a little bit of an edge.
“We haven't arrived. We still have a lot of work to do.”
Despite Florida’s lack of a downfield passing game, Georgia coach Mark Richt scoffs at the notion that the Gators are somehow hurting on that side of the ball.
“I’ll say this: Florida is undefeated. Florida hasn’t lost a game in 17 games. They’re No. 1 in the country. I think they’re doing pretty darn good,” Richt said. “They’re playing extremely good defense. They’re spreading people out offensively. They’re pounding the ball. They’re hammering the ball with their backs and with their quarterback, and they have basically taken control of every game and handled everybody with that strategy.
“So I don’t know if they feel like they’ve had to take a lot of chances downfield quite frankly. Whatever strategy they’re using right now, I think it’s working extremely well.”
Florida coach Urban Meyer sounded a similar tune about Georgia’s defense, which has given up an SEC-high 15 touchdown passes this season and ranks 90th nationally against the pass.
|Christian Petersen/Getty Images|
|Mark Richt's defense has only six takeaways this season.|
“I’m flipping on Georgia (on tape), and statistically, I know everybody is like, 'What about this and what about that?' " Meyer said. “All I know is what I see, and that’s as good a defensive personnel as there is in college football.”
The key for the Bulldogs, who’ve had an extra week to prepare, is playing to that talent level this Saturday.
They’ve only done it in spots the last two seasons. In fact, in their last 16 games, they’ve given up 37 or more points eight times.
It hasn’t been the best of times for Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, but Richt said the ball also hasn’t bounced the Bulldogs’ way at times this season on defense, either.
“We need to tackle well, play fast, play disciplined and find a way to not only force a turnover or force a fumble, but to get on it,” Richt said. “We’ve had nine fumbles and only gotten on one. We’ve had balls hit our hands that could have been picks. So we’ve been in position to make some turnovers. We just haven’t followed it through to the end. That’s very crucial.”
The Bulldogs are last in the SEC with six takeaways. Everybody else in the league has at least 11.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We get a little bonus action this week with Ole Miss taking on South Carolina on Thursday night in Columbia. I've got to find somebody who owns one of those Cockabooses so I can do a little tailgating before the game.
Here’s a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 4:
1. Garcia vs. Snead: Who’s been the more productive quarterback this season? You might want to do a little homework before you answer. Stephen Garcia has passed for 683 yards in three games with a 62.7 completion percentage and hasn’t looked anything like the guy who finished with eight interceptions and six touchdowns last season. He’s maturing as a quarterback and even the Head Ball Coach is starting to give him some props. Jevan Snead also hasn’t looked like the same guy who threw 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions during Ole Miss’ six-game winning streak to end last season. But, then, the Rebels haven’t really needed him to be on top of his game so far. They’ll need him Thursday night, though, if they’re going to get out of Columbia unscathed.
2. Finally a real game: Despite its lofty ranking, Ole Miss hasn’t been challenged. There were a few anxious moments in the first half of the Memphis game to open the season, but the Rebels won going away. Then came the open date and flu outbreak followed by the rout of outmanned Southeastern Louisiana last week. It’s been a strange September for the Rebels, only one Saturday game all month. We know they’re talented. We know last year’s team ended the season playing superb football. But this is a different team and a different season. We find out a lot more about THIS team under the lights Thursday in a tough place to play against a South Carolina team that’s already been in a couple of battles.
3. Petrino vs. Saban: It’s the classic offense vs. defense debate. Bobby Petrino is a whiz at exploiting defenses and finding ways to score points. Nick Saban is a whiz at rendering offenses helpless and finding ways to keep the score down. In his second year at Arkansas, Petrino has a quarterback in Ryan Mallett and enough playmakers around him to put up Xbox-like numbers. See last week’s shootout against Georgia. Saban’s defensive front seven at Alabama is one of the best in college football. They specialize in putting opposing quarterbacks on their backside. Something’s got to give Saturday in Tuscaloosa.
4. Chomping at the bit: It wasn’t a loss, but it sure sounded like it around the Florida camp this week. Even after a win over Tennessee, albeit one that wasn’t all that flattering, Florida coach Urban Meyer found himself talking more about what the Gators didn’t do than what they did do. The bottom line: It wasn’t a championship performance against the Vols. Not even close, and these Gators are all about winning another championship. In retrospect, it may have been a blessing in disguise, because Meyer’s had his team’s attention and then some this week. That’s probably not good news for Kentucky.
5. Taking down No. 1: The last time the No. 1-ranked team in the country visited Commonwealth Stadium, that team walked away with a loss. LSU suffered a 43-37 triple-overtime setback to Kentucky in 2007, but still went on to win the national title. Seeing a scenario where Florida could stumble at Kentucky on Saturday and still remain on course in the national championship race is difficult to imagine. But so was seeing LSU climb back into position later in the 2007 season after the Tigers lost to an unranked Arkansas team on the final weekend of the regular season. In this league, you never know.
6. Getting offensive: LSU’s offensive numbers have been pretty pedestrian, and that’s being kind. The Tigers are last in the SEC in total offense, 10th in rushing offense and ninth in passing offense. They’ve just sort of gotten by to this point. None of their running backs have rushed for 100 yards in a game. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson has thrown five touchdown passes and just one interception, but he’s yet to throw for more than 172 yards in a game. It’s been a little bit here and a little bit there heading into Saturday’s game at Mississippi State. The Tigers are due for a breakout game on offense.
7. Linebacker U.: Want to see the best linebacker tandem in the country? Tune into Alabama’s game with Arkansas on Saturday and find No. 25 and No. 30. They will be the guys always around the football. Junior Rolando McClain has been a force from his middle linebacker position since his freshman season. Sophomore Dont’a Hightower is quickly emerging into one of the best big-play linebackers in the SEC. He moves outside on obvious passing downs, which is where he’ll be for most of the game against Arkansas, and is tied for second in the league with four tackles for loss.
8. Getting a pass?: The Georgia fans aren’t happy with the Bulldogs’ pass defense, and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez has been their target. It was a similar story last season when the Bulldogs gave up 38 or more points in four of their last five regular-season games. Well, they’ve given up 37 or more points in their last two games, although they’ve managed to win both. Georgia coach Mark Richt isn’t ready to hit the panic button. He likes the way the Bulldogs have stopped the run, but said they haven’t gotten enough inside pressure against the pass. That’s surprising when you look at the talent and depth the Bulldogs have at tackle. Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens are both future NFL players.
9. Dixon’s back: Sort of quietly, Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon has rushed for 215 yards the past two weeks after being suspended for the opener. He definitely has more burst now that he’s down around the 235-pound range and showed off that burst last week with a 40-yard run in the fourth quarter to set up Mississippi State’s clinching touchdown in its 15-3 win over Vanderbilt. Dixon talked to the media this week for the first time since his DUI arrest in July and said all the right things. There’s no question that he understands how important he is to this team, and the Bulldogs are going to ride him the rest of the way. Look for LSU to get a steady dose of No. 24 on Saturday.
10. Must-win mode: If Vanderbilt is entertaining serious thoughts about getting back to a bowl game this season, the Commodores can’t afford to come back from Rice with a loss. This is a game Bobby Johnson’s club absolutely has to have to keep any postseason hopes alive. Ultimately, it’s not going to matter if the Commodores can’t work out the kinks offensively. They’ve scored just 12 points in their past two games and have struggled to get anything going in their passing game. Quarterback Larry Smith hasn’t thrown it well, but the receivers haven’t caught it well, either. The plan Saturday will be to simplify and narrow the playbook to find something the Commodores can hang their hat on offensively.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Dez Bryant has been relatively quiet today.
But the Oklahoma State wide receiver's catches have been daggers to Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
Bryant's 12-yard TD snag from Zac Robinson -- only his third reception of the game -- help extend Oklahoma State's lead to 24-10 with 7:59 left in the game.
Oklahoma State's scoring drive was extended by a crucial personal foul by Georgia strong safety Reshad Jones, who was flagged for a head-to-head hit on Justin Blackmon.
Three plays later, Robinson and Bryant hooked up for the All-American's first reception since late in the first half.
The score came after another critical turnover by Georgia as Joe Cox fumbled. It was the second time the Bulldogs have fumbled inside their own 32. Oklahoma State has turned those miscues into 10 points.
The story of the game has been Bill Young's defensive plan against Georgia. After allowing a touchdown on the Bulldogs' first drive, the Bulldogs have been limited to three points.
The Cowboys' defense was presumed to be its biggest weakness heading into the season. But today, it's been the Cowboys' most consistent element.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach
It's finally here, and here are 10 things I can't wait to see on the opening Saturday of the 2009 college football season:
1. Can Alabama's rebuilt offensive line protect quarterback Greg McElroy and open enough holes for the running game? The Crimson Tide looked pretty bad without left tackle Andre Smith against Utah in the Sugar Bowl, and now the All-American is gone for good. Guard Mike Johnson tells me James Carpenter, a JUCO transfer from Augusta, Ga., is going to be pretty good at left tackle. Replacing center Antoine Caldwell is equally important.
2. Can Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor throw it better than last year? If the Hokies are going to live up to their lofty preseason billing -- and win me a 12-pack of adult beverages from ESPN.com ACC blogger Heather Dinich -- than Taylor has to become a more complete quarterback. It will be tough against Bama's stout defense.
3. Will Georgia's defense handle Oklahoma State's three-headed monster? Bulldogs defensive coordinator Willie Martinez told me yesterday that he feels pretty good about his defense. Defensive end Demarcus Dobbs and Roderick Battle had good preseason camps, according to Martinez, and they'll have to get pressure on OSU quarterback Zac Robinson. But Martinez believes the key to stopping OSU's high-octane attack is containing Kendall Hunter to take away the play-action pass.
4. How will Joe Cox play against OSU? The senior waited three seasons for Matthew Stafford to leave and his time is finally here. Cox has been battling flu-like symptoms for a few days, and didn't fly with his teammates to Stillwater, Okla. He arrived at OSU late Friday night and is said to be feeling much better.
5. Will Michigan be any better? Surely, the Wolverines won't be any worse after going 3-9 in coach Rich Rodriguez's first season in Ann Arbor. Western Michigan is going to be a tough opener -- maybe a lot tougher than most people believe -- and the Wolverines have to find some confidence early in the season. Rodriguez will play three quarterbacks -- Tate Forcier, Nick Sheridan and freshman Denard Robinson.
6. Is Notre Dame a legitimate BCS contender? Believe it or not, we'll find out a lot about the Fighting Irish in today's opener against Nevada. Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick is very, very good and his ability to scramble and run will present challenges to Notre Dame's defense. I really want to see if the Fighting Irish can run the ball better than they have the last couple of seasons.
7. How good are the new quarterbacks? Matt Barkley, the first freshman to start at quarterback for USC, should have his way against San Jose State. Will Blaine Gabbert fill Chase Daniel's enormous shoes at Missouri? The Tigers' new quarterback faces a stiff test today against Illinois. Cox and Alabama's McElroy won't be the only new quarterbacks in the spotlight.
8. Will there be any upsets in Week 1? How about Western Michigan over Michigan? Central Michigan over Arizona? Ohio over Connecticut? Louisiana Tech over Auburn? I'm sure there will be a couple of surprising results.
9. How good will Oklahoma's offensive line be against BYU? The Sooners have to replace four starters on the line, including All-America guard Duke Robinson. Protecting reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford might not be as easy without them. Converted tight end Brody Eldridge moves to center, and LSU transfer Jarvis Jones takes over at guard. Bradford will need some new targets, too, with Manny Johnson and Juaquin Iglesias moving on. He'll miss tight end Jermaine Gresham, who is out for at least a week with a knee injury.
10. How will Auburn and Tennessee look under new leaders? The Tigers might get a stiff test from Louisiana Tech, so they'll need a good game from quarterback Chris Todd, who was a surprising choice to run Gus Mahlzahn's offense. The Volunteers will probably be pretty vanilla against overmatched Western Kentucky, but they need to get better quickly. The Vols play at defending BCS national champion Florida in two weeks.
Enjoy the games.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
ATHENS, Ga. -- Hell hath no fury like an SEC fanbase determined to run a coach out of town.
The popular target last season at Georgia was defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, and the backlash against him was downright nasty at times.
That's what happens in these parts when you start a season ranked No. 1 in the country and then proceed to lose three of the biggest games you play all year -- giving up 41 or more points in all three games.
"Nobody was more disappointed than myself in how we played defensively last year," Martinez said. "I take full responsibility. But (the criticism) is part of the business. You don't try to pay too much attention to the things you can't control. You try and control the things you can and do the best you can. I know I can do a better job."
Georgia coach Mark Richt was steadfast in his support of Martinez. They go back to their playing days at Miami, although Richt was a couple of years ahead of Martinez in school. When Richt got the head job at Georgia, Martinez came with him from Central Michigan as secondary coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2005 after Brian VanGorder left.
"He's a couple years older than I am, but I look older and have less hair," joked Martinez, sporting the Curly Neal look.
Nothing was funny about last season on the defensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs were ravaged by injuries, tackled poorly most of the season and allowed 38 or more points in four of their last five regular-season games.
The low point came in the regular-season finale. Georgia Tech shredded Georgia for 409 rushing yards in a 45-42 win at Sanford Stadium, snapping the Bulldogs' seven-game winning streak in the series.
The calls for Richt to fire Martinez at that point were deafening, but Richt would hear none of it.
"I know he's an outstanding coach and an outstanding man," Richt said. "Statistically, we didn't play as well as we have in the past, and there were some games that got away from us defensively. That hasn't happened a lot around here, but you just can't discount the impact all the injuries had on our defense.
"It wasn't just the injuries, either. We had to change the way we prepared to keep from losing another guy, and that knocked the edge off our defense. We didn't tackle. We didn't practice tackling. We didn't tackle to the ground, and we didn't scrimmage as much as we usually scrimmage.
"When you don't do that, it's hard to just turn it on during the games."
Martinez had his chance to bolt even if Richt wasn't holding the door open for him. He was offered the defensive coordinator's job at Miami this past January after Bill Young left to go to Oklahoma State.
The lure to return to his alma mater was strong, but it didn't outweigh his loyalty to Richt, his love for the Georgia community or the fact that he simply couldn't bring himself to walk away on the heels of such an unfulfilling season.
"This is a great place and a great program," Martinez said. "It's been a huge blessing to my family, what we've been able to accomplish here. I felt like we could do a lot better. It just wasn't the right time."
A cursory glance at the Bulldogs' defensive numbers from last season doesn't look nearly as bad as one might think when you consider the degree of venom hurled Martinez's way. They slipped to 59th nationally in scoring defense, but were a respectable 22nd in total defense.
And that's after Georgia finished in the top 20 nationally in both scoring and total defense all three seasons from 2005 to 2007.
It's the way the Bulldogs lost, though, and the way they were carved apart against the best teams on their schedule that was so painful to watch.
Even some of the wins were difficult to enjoy, particularly the 52-38 track meet at LSU.
"It's hard to satisfy a defensive coach, and I'm as hard as anybody to satisfy," Martinez said. "We want to win. That's our number one goal, but we definitely don't want to win by one point and have 40-some points hung on you. That's not the way we want to win."
He's still hesitant to talk too much about the injuries last season. He doesn't want to use them as an excuse.
But he peers over to the depth chart on the big board in his office, a depth chart littered with guys recovering from surgery, and does his best to be philosophical.
"Defense is emotion, playing hard, being physical and setting the tempo, and we were unable to do that last year," said Martinez, noting how much the Bulldogs had to scale back practice.
"But, hey, we all still have a bad taste in our mouths. Regardless of the situation, it doesn't really matter if it's injuries. Good defense has always been a tradition around here, and tradition never graduates.
"It's, 'Next man up and let's go.' Who cares if the other guy is gone?"
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It's been an exceedingly long season for Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
Bring up his name to just about anybody in the Bulldog Nation and cover your ears.
|Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE|
|Georgia's defense held star Michigan State tailback Javon Ringer to 47 yards on 20 carries.|
Who could blame Martinez then if he was a little bummed about seeing the final seconds tick off the clock Thursday in Georgia's 24-12 victory over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl?
This had to be a performance he wanted to savor.
His Georgia defense was masterful, capping a season in which the Bulldogs' D was anything but.
Time and time again, Georgia's defense saved the offense in the first half. Michigan State ran 26 plays in Georgia territory in the first half, but managed just two field goals. And twice in the first quarter, the Bulldogs turned the ball over on their side of the 50, but Georgia's defense kept the Spartans out of the end zone both times.
Michigan State star tailback Javon Ringer never got going against the Bulldogs and was held to 47 yards on 20 carries. The Spartans finished with just 236 yards of total offense and were 4 of 16 on third down.
Georgia sacked Michigan State quarterbacks six times, and that's after collecting an SEC-low 18 sacks in 12 regular-season games.
Frankly, Georgia's defense played so well that you almost had to rub your eyes and wonder if this was the same bunch of guys on the field that were shredded at times this season.
Not that Martinez or anybody at Georgia needs to be reminded, but the Bulldogs allowed 38 or more points in four of their last five games of the regular season. They were torched for 409 rushing yards by Georgia Tech in the finale at home.
It wasn't pretty with regard to the defense the last month in Athens, and that's putting it mildly.
But the time off allowed the Bulldogs to get a little healthier on that side of the ball, to gather themselves emotionally and ultimately produce one of their best defensive showings of the season.
It's the sixth time in eight years at Georgia that Mark Richt has won 10 or more games, at least a small consolation for a team that started the season ranked No. 1 in the country.
Now the waiting begins.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who looked like an NFL quarterback in the second half after a slow start, is pondering his football future. He would be one of the top-rated quarterbacks in the draft if he decides to come out. Tailback Knowshon Moreno will also decide whether or not to turn pro.
As important as getting a win was Thursday for the Bulldogs, these next few days might be even more important. The deadline for underclassmen to declare is Jan. 15.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
If Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez thought his seat was hot before Saturday, he might want to avoid sitting down altogether over the next few weeks.
There's no other way to say it. His defense was humiliated by Georgia Tech's triple option in a 45-42 loss at Sanford Stadium that will give Georgia coach Mark Richt plenty to think about leading up to the bowl game.
LSU's defense gets the award in the SEC for underachieving the most, but Georgia is a close second.
For much of the last half of the season (and really against anybody who had some semblance of a real offense), the Bulldogs were utterly awful on defense.
And their tackling? We won't even go there.
Georgia Tech lit up the Georgia defense for 409 rushing yards, the most the Bulldogs have given up in a game since Vanderbilt rolled up 415 in a 43-40 win over the Bulldogs in 1994.
It goes much deeper than just this game, too.
The Bulldogs ended the regular season by giving up 38 or more points in four of their last five games. In their home loss to Alabama in September, they gave up 31 by halftime in a 41-30 loss.
For perspective, only twice in Vince Dooley's 25 years at Georgia did the Bulldogs allow 38 or more points in a game, and it happened only twice on Richt's watch prior to this season.
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
2:00 PM ET Washington State Colorado State 3:30 PM ET 20 Fresno State 25 USC 5:30 PM ET Buffalo San Diego State 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State