ATHENS — Alabama lost a bunch of stars to the NFL, yet it's hard to tell much difference. The Crimson Tide still has the nation's top-ranked defense.
There was never any shortage of talent at Georgia, where all the best defensive players decided to remain in college for another year. Even so, the Bulldogs didn't start playing up to their potential until they were called out by one of their own.
An outburst by safety Shawn Williams, who accused his teammates of playing "soft," sparked a dramatic turnaround at Georgia. It's a big reason the third-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) will face No. 2 Alabama (11-1) for the Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday, with the winner claiming a spot in the national title game.
One thing seems certain: Both offenses will have trouble moving the ball.
"When you play with a team that has a great defense or had a great defense before you got here," said Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, "you want to keep the standard going."
Granted, the Crimson Tide has not been quite as dominant as a year ago, when the defense was led by four players — Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw — who were among the first 35 picks in the NFL draft. Alabama gave up more than 400 yards in two straight games, managing to pull out a win with a last-minute drive at LSU, but going down in a shocking upset to Texas A&M in Tuscaloosa.
Still, the Tide leads the country in points allowed (9.25 per game) and total defense (233.7 yards).
"Those two games, we knew and the coaches knew ... we didn't play our best," linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "So after that loss, we kind of got back to the basics of doing what we have to do. Just doing the little things we do every day in practice — wrapping up, tackles, foot work. Once you lose sight of those things, that's when the big plays start to happen."
Georgia could've gone into the season with some big holes to fill on defense, but their two leading players — fearsome linebacker Jarvis Jones and ball-hogging safety Bacarri Rambo — passed on the chance to enter the NFL draft. Three other seniors, Williams, cornerback Sanders Commings and nose guard John Jenkins, also returned.
But, when the Bulldogs kicked off in the season opener, three key players were missing. Rambo had to serve a four-game suspension, reportedly for failing a drug test. Commings sat out the first two games after being arrested for an altercation with his girlfriend. Another of the starters, linebacker Alec Ogletree, was suspended four games for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
With so many guys watching from the sideline, Georgia gave up 23 points to Buffalo, 20 to Florida Atlantic. Even when all the suspended players returned, the defense continued to struggle in a 51-44 shootout victory against Tennessee.
The following week, it all fell apart. South Carolina romped to a 35-7 victory over the Bulldogs. The next game wasn't much better, as Georgia struggled to a beat lowly Kentucky 29-24. At that point, Georgia had given up at least 20 points in six of its seven games. With a huge contest coming up against unbeaten Florida, Williams decided it was time to vent.
He said the defense was "just not playing with the same attitude we were last year." In particular, he appeared to single out a pair of teammates, senior linebackers Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard. They took issue with the comments and vowed to prove Williams wrong. That week, Georgia turned in its best defensive performance of the season, beating the Gators 17-9.
"He didn't do that to disrespect anyone," cornerback Damian Swann said. "He wanted everyone to give 110 percent. He just felt like everybody wasn't. Once he came out and said what he had to say, you've seen a big change in the statistics with how the defense is doing."
Indeed, Georgia has surrendered only 43 points in its last five games. The yards are also down significantly during that span, an average of 296.4 per game compared to 367.4 over the first seven contests.
Robinson can now smile when asked about Williams' rant.
"I think other people were nervous about getting called out," the linebacker quipped. "They were thinking, 'If I don't show up this week, am I going to get called out, too?' It's funny when you look at it now."
Georgia coach Mark Richt is just glad that someone took the lead, though he wasn't necessarily pleased with the way Williams did it at the time, going through the media instead of speaking behind closed doors.
"When they get their blood high," Richt said of his defense, "they play better."
The Bulldogs are certainly showing a lot more swagger on that side of the line. Rambo provided the first big dose of bulletin-board material when, in a national radio interview, he said he felt like Georgia had more talent than the Crimson Tide. No one else has gone that far, but everyone says they match up well with the defending national champions.
"Their defense has been one of the tops in the country for the past couple of years," Swann said. "Statistically, we had a couple of games where we didn't look too good. Now, we're getting back to the Georgia defense we know we can be."