AUBURN — There won’t be many pleasantries exchanged when Auburn hosts No. 5 Georgia on Saturday night in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.
Georgia (8-1, 6-1 SEC) is playing for the SEC East Division title and a spot in the conference title game. Auburn (2-7, 0-6) can derail the Bulldogs’ plans and send Florida to Atlanta for the SEC Championship in the process.
For the Tigers to pull the upset it’ll take a great outing from their defense which has two former Georgia defensive coordinators in Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and Auburn secondary coach Willie Martinez. VanGorder was the defensive coordinator at Georgia from 2001-04 and Martinez was the defensive coordinator from 2005-09.
Both men said they remain friendly with their former colleagues at Georgia but that Saturday will be all business.
“I’ve got a lot of good friends there and a lot of great memories and I certainly have a tremendous amount of respect for (Georgia coach) Mark (Richt) and (offensive coordinator) Mike (Bobo) and what they’ve done at Georgia over the years,” VanGorder said. “Mark gave me my first real break in this business.
“… It was just such a fantastic time in my life. I certainly am aware of all that but I’ve also been in it long enough that I know when the whistle blows to start the game on Saturday night that it’s a ball game. It’s a thinking man’s game and it’s an emotional game, and that’ll really be the focus.”
Martinez said he’s preparing like he would against any other opponent but that seeing some familiar faces before the game will provide unique reunion.
“I think maybe probably about game time and seeing some of those players, (I had) the opportunity recruiting and coaching will probably be a special feeling in there,” Martinez said.
Richt shared a similar sentiment.
“I love their families, they’re great people, great coaches and enjoyed my time working with them. They’re very good friends to me,” Richt said. “As far as the emotion, my emotion’s going to be focused on playing a game.”
The familiarity with the opposition VanGorder and Martinez bring to the table is certainly a benefit to Auburn but both downplayed its significance. VanGorder said his knowledge of Georgia will help “more about timing of calls” than about the Bulldogs’ schemes.
There have been mixed results for Auburn in the first year of VanGorder’s defensive system. The Tigers rank 62nd in scoring (27.3 points), 85th in total defense (428.7 yards) and have just one interception — with performances ranging from good — limiting New Mexico State to 83 yards rushing — to dreadful —allowing a record 671 yards by Texas A&M.
Auburn’s defensive struggles in the first year under VanGorder are similar to those he experienced when he took over at Georgia.
“That was a situation where we really had to change the culture of defense there,” VanGorder said. “It was rough. We had a few tough games, some high yardage games, and it seems to me about the seventh game of the year we started to gain the consistency and confidence.
“And then by the end of the year, we were playing pretty solid ball. I think that team was 17th in the nation in scoring defense. We had some good players that played in the NFL for a long time. We had talent but the culture change was really the tough part of the first year.”
If you didn’t know it, you might think VanGorder’s remarks were about Auburn.
Richt said growing pains are part of any transition in coaching styles.
“I don’t know if anybody ever does a great job when you’re trying to install an offense or defense or whatever it is or even a philosophy, to get everybody to understand and buy into it and go full-speed on it is just very difficult to do in year one,” Richt said. “Year two you see so much more. I think their defense is playing pretty darn good if you ask me.”