ATHENS -- The truth is, for all the talk about this year’s season opener, Georgia didn’t spent its entire spring and preseason game-planning to just play Boise State. There was also time spent on Mississippi State and understandably so.
The other Bulldogs, who visit Sanford Stadium on Saturday, have a unique spread-option offense and a big quarterback who gave Georgia fits last year. It’s a big reason Georgia lost that game.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said there was focus on all of the SEC teams and Georgia Tech before the season. But he did give a hint that Mississippi State may have gotten some special attention.
He pointed out Mississippi State has eight offensive starters back from the team that beat Georgia 24-12. And when he asked if he hoped his defense was more physical this year, Grantham answered, “That’s why you work hard in the offseason and give up tee times.”
Then Grantham smiled wryly.
Georgia’s defense has been perhaps the biggest positive of the season so far. It enters the weekend ranked third in the SEC in yards allowed, behind just Alabama and Florida, which are both unbeaten and meet Saturday. The Bulldogs are second in pass defense, and they are also second in third-down defense, which was a major emphasis in the offseason.
The one weakness has been run defense but not necessarily up the middle. Nose tackles Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins have helped make the front three, and the front seven in general, a more physical group.
The problem has been outside runs. For instance, in the second half of a loss to South Carolina on Sept. 10, Georgia got a full dose of Gamecocks star tailback Marcus Lattimore taking the ball to the outside. It’s a good bet Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen noticed that.
Of course, Mullen and his spread-option offense runs wide a lot anyway. That’s why Saturday figures to be a stiff test for Grantham’s unit.
“They run a lot. We know they run a lot,” outside linebacker Cornelius Washington said. “We’re just gonna get ready and strap up for a bloody type of game. They’re gonna try and pound us. But we’re ready for it. We pride ourselves on being run-stoppers. When we come out that’s the game plan, stop the run and then get them in passing situations.”
Mississippi State quarterback Chris Relf is the main threat. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound senior rushed for 109 yards in last year’s win over Georgia, in addition to passing for 148 yards and two touchdowns.
But Mississippi State can also use Relf and the threat of the pass for misdirection runs, which have also given Georgia problems at times. Mississippi State also has a tailback, senior Vick Ballard, who ranks sixth in the SEC this year with 101.8 rushing yards per game.
Grantham called Mississippi State a team that, despite the spread option, generally uses “traditional runs.”
“It doesn’t look like it, but they’re a power team, they’re a counter team, they’re a quarterback-running team,” Grantham said. “Their quarterback is a runner. Now he’s gonna throw it, but he’s gonna run it too. So they’re gonna run traditional runs, it’s just that sometimes the quarterback can be a part of it.”
Still, Relf figures to be the main test, as Washington acknowledged.
“We know that that’s the type of guy he is,” Washington said. “So whenever he does decide to tuck it under and run, plain and simple we’re just gonna be ready.”