Now, the two former defensive coordinators for the fifth-ranked Bulldogs will be on the opposing side Saturday night trying to help Auburn figure out how to slow down Georgia’s offense.
It’s just another close tie in a border rivalry where it’s more often the players who have crossed state lines.
VanGorder is in his first season in the same job at Auburn, trying to rebuild a youthful group that has been inconsistent and at times abused this season. Martinez is coaching the Tigers’ secondary after spending nine seasons at Georgia (8-1, 6-1 SEC) and serving as defensive coordinator from 2005-09.
Both will face their former boss, Mark Richt, for the first time on the opposing sideline.
“Mark gave me my first real break in this business,” said VanGorder, Georgia’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach from 2001-04. “Then there are guys that played for me, and the fans at Georgia. 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.”
He’s got plenty of other things to worry about, anyway.
The Tigers (2-7, 0-6) must contend with quarterback Aaron Murray and one of the league’s top offenses with a group that allowed 671 total yards to Texas A&M two weeks ago. It was the most Auburn had ever yielded.
The growing pains have been significant for VanGorder, who spent the past four seasons as defensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. He has started three freshmen and a number of sophomores. Only defensive end Corey Lemonier, linebacker Daren Bates and safety Jermaine Whitehead have remained in the starting lineup for every game.
VanGorder said he went through a tough transition with Georgia, too.
“That was a situation where we really had to change the culture of defense there,” he said. “They just hadn’t played the same type of defense that maybe the personnel indicated that you could. 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.
“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.”
Georgia won an SEC title and two division titles during his stay in Athens. Martinez replaced him and the Bulldogs won another league championship in 2005.
Their new defense ranks last in the SEC in run defense and 13th in total yards allowed.
Richt doesn’t think the familiarity of VanGorder and Martinez — who spent nine seasons at Georgia and was coordinator from 2005-09 — with himself and Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will have much impact on the game.
“There’s not many secrets out there in the college football world or SEC world,” Richt said. “First of all, every bit of film there is is given to each other freely. That’s just how it is, so it’s not like you can’t get film on anybody and study what they do. Are we different offensively today than we were when VanGorder was here? Yeah, we’re very different. So maybe not as different as when coach Martinez was here, but for the most part it’s changed a good bit, just as far as little things and the fact that Mike is calling the game and not me.
“I think everybody gets enough information to put a good gameplan together.”
Auburn coach Gene Chizik, however, said that experience “certainly can’t hurt you.”
Chizik said Georgia has changed some philosophically on offense over the years but not all that much.
“I think it’s a little bit both ways,” the Auburn coach said. “The bottom line is when you watch this many games you know what they’re going to do, they know what you’re going to do. It’s just a matter of executing and being in the right positions to make plays. Defensively, they’ve seen the last nine or 10 games. They know what we’re going to do. They’ve been around those two guys as well. I think it’s probably kind of a push.”