Georgia hired Jeremy Pruitt for games like this

Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was pretty excited when the Bulldogs stuffed South Carolina's offense two weeks ago in Athens. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

ATHENS – Chris Mayes said he doesn’t remember exactly what the new coach said or whom he said it to. But the Georgia nose tackle said Jeremy Pruitt’s comments hit like a loud clap of thunder and the room went silent.

“He can be a little scary,” Mayes said of Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “He said something to one of the (defensive backs) and suddenly the whole demeanor in the room changed. I mean, he just, like, snapped. We were all sitting there, thinking, ‘Oh. This guy’s serious.’”

Jeremy Pruitt is serious. That isn’t to suggest Georgia hasn’t been serious about defense and winning before. But the hiring of Pruitt as coordinator in 2014 represented the program’s most aggressive hire under coach Mark Richt. Pruitt was coming off a national championship at Florida State. He was considered one of the top assistants in college football almost from the time he joined Alabama’s staff under Nick Saban out of renown Hoover High School in 2007.

Coaching connections to Nick Saban: Generally a good omen.

Pruitt was hired for weeks like this. Georgia plays Alabama . If the Bulldogs have any hopes of winning their first SEC title in 10 years or competing for a playoff spot, we’ll probably find out Saturday in Sanford Stadium. Games against Alabama generally is when dreams are either born or die.

Jeremy Pruitt smiles for his media guide mugshot. Kind of.

Forget that the Bulldogs are a 2½ point favorites. Richt probably put it best when asked about that rarity: “I don’t really have a reaction to that.”

Because what’s he supposed to say? You don’t put a program with 15 national titles and a head coach with four championships on one sideline and ever assume the opponent on the other sideline will win.

There is too much hardware in Tuscaloosa. There is a lingering headache in Athens, from the “blackout” loss in 2008 to the SEC and national title dreams that died on Alabama’s five-yard line in the Georgia Dome 2012.

It has been too long since Georgia or Richt have had a signature win that meant something. It’s not like there haven’t been big wins, but too often they have been followed by even more memorable losses. The Dogs beat Clemson to open last season only to lose to South Carolina a week later. They beat LSU in 2013 only to start losing bodies and get smacked by Missouri two weeks later. In 2007, Georgia won in Tuscaloosa in Saban’s first season there but two weeks later went to Knoxville to face a Tennessee team that had been blown out by Cal and Florida but they got steamrolled by the Volunteers 35-14.

There have been too many smackdowns when things have mattered most. Nothing can change that better than defense. Everybody remembers how Georgia nearly pulled the upset in the Dome three years ago. Nobody talks about how Alabama’s offensive line flattened Georgia’s defensive front and enabled the Tide to rush for 350 yards (6.9 per carry) in its 32-28 win.

That can’t happen Saturday.

“You better play with toughness,” Pruitt said when asked about the key to beating Alabama. “That’s one of the trademarks they’ve established since (Saban) has been there. You better find a way to create turnovers and not turn the ball over. And you better stop the run.”

When asked about Alabama representing a much stiffer test for the defense than the first four opponents, Pruitt responded as serious football coaches do: “We’re trying to focus on Georgia. That’s what we can control. We have to do a better job of communicating, recognizing formations, playing with more consistently. But we are doing some good things.”

Pruitt didn’t smile for his media guide mugshot. His look screams, “I’m the new warden.” It was needed window dressing, if nothing else.

Some of his players may still fear him but all quickly came to respect him.

Mayes believes the familiarity with Pruitt in the second year has led Georgia’s defense to play “more physical,” than last season. “We’re meaner,” he said.

“You can tell the difference in workouts. Our mentality overall. How guys carry themselves. How they approach practice. It stems from all the coaches. They want us to be tougher as a unit. When you see the younger guys focused and have that edge, it definitely stands out.”

What would stand out most is Georgia playing a too 10 opponent like Alabama and at least matching it punch for punch. That has been missing too often in the past. Maybe this time, the view will change.

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