ATHENS — Georgia doesn’t have a marquee bowl this year, it’s not visiting a tropical area, and it’s not playing a traditional powerhouse. But the story line is quite inviting.
Less than a year after defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left Georgia for Louisville, the two teams will play each other. The Bulldogs and Cardinals were chosen to play in the Belk Bowl at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Both teams are ranked — Georgia is No. 13 in the AP poll and Louisville is No. 20 — and both are 9-3.
“It’s going to be a great challenge to compete with Louisville, period, but certainly Todd has done a very, very good job there,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “So we’re looking forward to the game.”
Grantham spent four years as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, the highlight being the 2011 season, when his defense was among the nation’s best. But things went down from there, and the defense struggled enough last year that Grantham’s job was on the line. Richt retained him, but when Grantham was offered a raise to join Bobby Petrino’s staff at Louisville, he jumped on it.
The move appears to have worked out for both teams. Grantham had a great regular season as Louisville’s defense ranks sixth in the nation this year. Georgia’s defense, under Jeremy Pruitt, is 18th in the nation, but that’s a vast improvement from 45th last year under Grantham.
“From what I’ve seen of them they have been outstanding, and when you do look at the statistical data ... just very, very impressive,” Richt said of Louisville’s defense. “They do a super job of a lot of things besides just stopping the run.”
Grantham ruffled some at Georgia at his Louisville introductory news conference when he called his defense the “backbone” of Georgia’s SEC East championship teams in 2011 and 2012. The defense was indeed strong in 2011, but the next year the offense was stronger.
Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have been careful not to return the fire. The furthest Richt has gone was saying the overhaul in defensive staffs proved to be a good thing.
And Richt did his best Sunday night to avoid saying anything much about Grantham. Asked if any current Georgia defensive players who played for Grantham would have any more fire for this game, Richt deferred.
“I guess you’ll just have to ask them when the time comes,” Richt said. “One thing we’ve done is we’ve competed extremely well every game and we’re gonna expect that from our guys, and they expect it, too.”
Two of Grantham’s former Georgia players joined him at Louisville: safety Josh Harvey-Clemons after he was dismissed at Georgia, and cornerback Shaq Wiggins after he transferred due to a personality conflict with Pruitt.
Harvey-Clemons and Wiggins are redshirting and not playing this year. But Grantham will be calling Louisville’s defensive plays on the other sideline.
Oh, and the Cardinals are coached by Petrino, the former Atlanta Falcons head coach who infamously left the Falcons before the season was over to take the Arkansas job.
Meanwhile, Georgia — which just more than a week ago still had hopes of making the College Football Playoff — finds itself in what has been regarded as at best mid-tier bowl. The Belk Bowl used to be the Meinecke Car Bowl, which did not previously have an SEC affiliation and had less prestige under the old bowl system.
But the bowl has more prestige now, argued Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity. The Belk and Texas bowls have replaced two of the SEC-affiliated bowls (Peach and Cotton) that moved up to playoff/top tier status this year.
And prestige aside, McGarity added, after the top tier bowls and the Citrus Bowl, the SEC put no pecking order on the six other bowls. So while it’s true that the Citrus shunned Georgia, it’s not true that the Outback or other bowls did.
“There may be people that think there are lobbying efforts or lack of lobbying. Those days have gone. Those days have disappeared,” McGarity said. “It’s almost having to re-program people on the selection process. Because the perception some people have that you fell spots is just not accurate any longer.”
The Belk Bowl will be one of 10 bowls this year, out of 39, that has two ranked teams competing against each other.
McGarity suggested a number of story lines for the game, in addition to Grantham. Georgia has never played in Charlotte. It’s also a chance to earn a 10th win for the 21st time in program history (and ninth under head coach Mark Richt), and then there’s “a legitimate shot” of finishing in the top 10, depending on how other teams fare.
“One thing that’s promising is you’re playing a ranked opponent, that’s lost three hard-fought games,” McGarity said. “You have a level of familiarity between the two programs from a coaching standpoint. So I think there are a lot of positives. It’s a game where our fans can get to very easily. And again, playing a top 25 team in an NFL venue, and we’ve never played there before. So there’s a lot of newness.”
Louisville and Georgia have two common opponents this year. Georgia beat Clemson in the season opener, 45-21, while the Cardinals lost 23-17 in Death Valley on Oct. 11. Both teams beat Kentucky, Georgia in Lexington, Louisville at home.