ATHENS – Kirby Smart and Dan Mullen are on very friendly terms. Their lake houses on Lake Oconee are close by. Their wives and children see each other at the lake community’s pool. The two men can ring each other up if they want to hang out too.
On the football field lately, Smart has had Mullen’s number too, something Georgia hopes translates to Saturday’s match-up with Mississippi State.
The history between the coaches on the other sides of the ball, however, is more mixed.
First, Smart vs. Mullen. This is their first meeting since Smart became Georgia’s head coach. But while the defensive coordinator at Alabama, Smart’s team was 7-0 against Mullen’s MSU teams, including four games in which both teams were ranked.
Mississippi State, for whom Mullen calls plays, averaged just 8.6 points in seven games against Smart’s Alabama defenses. MSU averaged 273.9 yards in those games.
Mullen did have more success when he was Florida’s offensive coordinator: The Gators twice beat Alabama and Smart’s defenses there, averaging 30 points and 342 yards in two Florida wins, including the 2008 SEC championship game.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach Mullen and their program, having gone against them for a long time my previous stop,” Smart said this week. “I think they’re a very physical team. They always are.”
In this case, the past may not be prologue: Smart, while still very involved, has turned over coordinator duties at Georgia to Mel Tucker. And Alabama’s head coach during that 7-0 run was Nick Saban, not Smart.
But if scheme matters, Smart’s involvement points to some sort of knowledge on how to defend Mullen’s spread-option offense. And for those who would point to the awesome talent on those Alabama’s defenses, Georgia’s defensive personnel doesn’t appear too shabby either.
“They have their defensive philosophy that they run. You see similarities (with Alabama),” Mullen said. “And the guy this year being even more comfortable in the scheme than they were last year. … It’s a very good scheme, and I know Kirby’s a great coach. He did a great job at Alabama and you can see that defense growing into that same style of defense at Georgia.”
Of course, the Smart/Tucker vs. Mullen match-up is only one side of the ball.
If you ask people who watch Mississippi State, the defense is the area that has made big strides. And the man running it is Todd Grantham, who some may remember was Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2010-13. He faces off against Jim Chaney, now in his second year running Georgia’s offense.
Grantham and Chaney have faced off four times, all this decade. Grantham’s team holds a 3-1 record in those match-ups, but their unit’s match-up is more of a draw:
- 2015: Pittsburgh (Chaney as offensive coordinator) beat Louisville (Grantham as DC), 45-34. …. 476 yards of total offense.
- 2012: Chaney’s Tennessee offense did well but Georgia won, 51-44. … 478 total yards by Tennessee.
- 2011: Chaney’s Tennessee offense struggled in a 20-12 Georgia win … 269 total yards by Tennessee.
- 2010: Chaney’s Tennessee offense struggled again in a 41-14 Georgia rout … 269 total yards by Tennessee.
Then there’s the third, less discussed but still important part of the game: Special teams. The data on that is a bit more complicated – Georgia special teams coordinator Shane Beamer began his SEC coaching career at Mississippi State, but that was prior to Mullen’s arrival.
And ultimately, as coaches will tell you, this comes down to players. Few analysts, if any, wouldn’t argue that Georgia is the more talented team. But LSU may have had more than Mississippi State, and look how that turned out.
That got Georgia’s attention, as does the importance of this game in the standings: Arguably it is the two best teams in the SEC not named Alabama.
“Conference plays begins now,” Georgia fullback Christian Payne said. “The road to Atlanta begins now.”