Tue Sep 14 10:54am EDT
Teams facing an early turning point this weekend.
After five years of steadily diminishing returns under not-so-dearly departed coordinator Willie Martinez, it wasn't too tall an order to get Georgia fans feeling optimistic about their defense again. But Todd Grantham's hire in January was a particularly good start: He brought a new scheme and a new sensibility from the Dallas Cowboys, and the perpetual promise of new defensive coordinators everywhere to be more "aggressive" than the tepid hand-wringer he replaced. It didn't hurt that the new look thoroughly dominated Louisiana-Lafeyette in a 55-7 rout its first time out, either.
It's far, far too early to begin thinking of Saturday's slow bludgeoning at the hands of South Carolina and its Mack truck freshman tailback, Marcus Lattimore, as some kind of indictment to those expectations: After his first SEC start, we have no real idea yet how many of Lattimore's 29 broken tackles and 127 yards after contact can be chalked up to his inherent Mack-truckitude, or to Georgia's consistently godawful tackling. When not faced with the second coming of Emmitt Smith, it's possible Grantham's D will hold up just fine against the "little inside play" that kept it on the field for upwards of 35 minutes last week, and whatever else opposing offenses have to throw at it.
Whether "just fine" is good enough opposite an offense still missing its best player after failing to find the end zone at all in Carolina is another question. This is certainly the Saturday to find out: If Arkansas falls on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Gamecocks in terms of brute, between-the-tackles running, it more than makes up for it with a deadly downfield arsenal that's already picked up where it left off last at the top of the SEC passing charts. Ryan Mallett and his nuclear arm unloaded on the Bulldog secondary for 408 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions last year in Fayetteville, including eight completions that covered at least 20 yards on a 41-point night for the Razorback offense. It was arguably the worst defensive effort in Mark Richt's nine-year tenure at UGA, the moment the dam holding back anti-Martinez sentiment was permanently breached, and every player who played a significant role in Arkansas' passing game – Mallett, his top five receivers, four of five starting offensive linemen – are back.
The difference then was an offense on Georgia's side that was able to torch the hapless Razorback secondary to equally spectacular effect for a 52-41 win. Sans receiver A.J. Green, there was no indication at all last week that redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray can keep pace yet in that kind of shootout, barring an even more spectacular collapse by a more experienced Arkansas defense. No, it will be up to the running game (almost entirely absent at Carolina after the first series) and even more so Grantham's defense to help keep the young quarterback in his comfort zone.
Otherwise, the 'Dogs are suddenly staring down an 0-2 SEC start with Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech still on tap over the next two months, and the sobering reality that dumping Martinez may not be the instant cure-all they'd hoped. That's the point where the alleged grumbling about Mark Richt, only a rumor over the last year, really begins in earnest. It may be too early to call a September trip from a West Division also-ran a "must-win," but another uninspiring effort can guarantee one coming up fast behind it.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.