ATHENS, Ga. -- Next Saturday's SEC championship game won't be the first time that Todd Grantham has coached against Nick Saban, whom he lists as one of his biggest coaching influences.
However, there is a bit more at stake next week in Atlanta. The winner will almost certainly advance to the BCS championship game.
"It's awesome," Georgia's defensive coordinator said. "That's why you play the game. That's why you do what you do. We're one game away from playing for the national championship. Obviously we're going to face a talented team. They've got good players, good coaches, but we'll be ready."
Grantham coached under Saban at Michigan State between 1996 and 1998 -- a time when he began to formulate the 3-4 defensive philosophy he now employs with the Bulldogs. Grantham has since worked alongside multiple 3-4 gurus, including Wade Phillips, Dom Capers and Romeo Crennel in the NFL, but he never hesitates to credit Saban for his impact.
"He's a guy that's really allowed me to launch my career. I learned a lot from him," Grantham said. "Systematically, defensively we're very similar in what we do. So he's been one of the reasons that I've been able to have the success that I've had. He does a great job and there's a reason they're playing for a chance to go to the national championship game, too."
The SEC championship game will mark the first meeting between Grantham and Saban since Grantham returned to the college game in 2010. They met once in the NFL. It came in 2005, when Grantham was defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns and Saban was the Miami Dolphins' head coach. Cleveland won a mid-November game 20-0 to improve to 4-6 and drop Saban's Dolphins to 3-7.
Saban returned to college athletics two years later and has since led Alabama to two BCS titles in the last three seasons. Grantham joined the Georgia staff three years ago and now directs a defense that was a key factor in the Bulldogs claiming back-to-back SEC East titles -- a group that has steadily improved at all three levels since midseason.
"When everybody on the team's making plays, it feels great because you know that everybody's doing their job and everybody prepared their best and is playing disciplined when everybody's on the field making plays," Jones said. "You can see on the stat sheet, everybody was out there making plays and it feels good to see that -- not just one player dominating the game or two players dominating, but when everybody could contribute."
It has been a group effort for Georgia's defense during the last five games -- a stretch that started with a 17-9 win against previously unbeaten Florida. In that five-game span, the Bulldogs allowed 8.6 points per game and held all five opponents -- Florida, Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech -- to their lowest scoring totals of the season.
The Bulldogs will face perhaps their biggest test of the year from an Alabama offense that is averaging one more point per game (39.0) than Georgia's own explosive offense (38.0). The Crimson Tide have been effective both running (214.2 ypg) and throwing (218.8 ypg), so Georgia's defensive players know they'll have to be at their best if they are to unseat the defending BCS champions.
"You just can't focus on their running game because they have a passing game somewhat," defensive tackle John Jenkins said. "So just being able to find a way to stop them is what we're going to have to do. We're going to have to find a way because they're a very explosive team, very skilled players, very great coaching staff over there. They won the national championship over there last year, so you've got to respect them."