ATHENS, Ga. -- James Franklin has made it clear since he arrived at Vanderbilt last year that he will not back down from a fight.
Todd Grantham nearly gave him one -- and that screaming match between Georgia’s defensive coordinator and Vanderbilt’s head coach after the Bulldogs barely hung on for a 33-28 win last season is sure to be one of the dominant storylines as their teams prepare for Saturday’s rematch.
For his part, Grantham tried on Saturday night to downplay any bad blood that his confrontation with Franklin might have created. But he admitted that he hasn’t been asked questions about any subject more than those concerning his dustup with Franklin since it occurred last October.
“I have not,” Grantham said. “It’s an SEC East game. That’s the biggest thing: SEC East home game. So to me, it’s about us winning an SEC home game and any time you play an SEC team, it’s going to be tough and competitive. So we’ve got to prepare to be ready to play that kind of game.”
Coaches and players from both sides seemed to follow suit, mostly delivering clichés about how they expect to fight for four quarters and that they will prepare hard for Saturday’s game like they would for any other opponent, although this will surely be a dogfight.
“I know we’ll be motivated. We’ll be motivated for that game,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said Saturday before quickly trying to change the subject.
Their comments weren’t fooling anyone, however. It’s apparent that this Georgia-Vanderbilt means more than normal, and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins was one of the few who confirmed as much.
The freshman outside linebacker wasn’t even on the team during last year’s game in Nashville, when Franklin and Grantham squared off after Georgia safety Shawn Williams’ postgame behavior angered Vandy’s coach and Grantham vehemently defended Williams when Franklin complained.
Franklin then upped the ante in his postgame news conference, telling reporters, “We are not going to sit back and take stuff from anybody. Anybody. No one. Those days are long gone and they are never coming back, ever.”
Jenkins wasn’t there when the Bulldogs were angered by what they believed were illegal blocks by Commodores center Logan Stewart, who along with Georgia’s Kwame Geathers and Williams was suspended for the first half of the next game because of their actions.
But Jenkins heard about Franklin’s signing-day comments that players who decommit after accepting scholarship offers are not “men of honor” or “men of integrity” -- uttered shortly after Jenkins’ signing classmate, Josh Dawson, flipped his commitment from Vandy to Georgia -- and he knows how the overall succession of events has added intensity to a previously tame division rivalry.
“This might be the game of the year,” Jenkins said after making his first career start in the Bulldogs’ 56-20 rout of Florida Atlantic. “With past reputations and stuff that transpired last year, I’m definitely expecting a four-quarter game. Vandy never gives up. They fight to the death and that’s one of the games I couldn’t wait to play.”
Asked if there is an unusual buzz around the locker room about facing Vanderbilt, Dawson said that is the case for some players.
“Between a couple of us there is -- me and Josh Dawson,” Jenkins said with a grin. “He committed there and I said, ‘You’d better turn up because they’re going to be after you.’ I’m just ready for that game and ready for the team to get past that landmark.”
Perhaps it is an even bigger landmark game for the Commodores, who are aggressively trying to change their reputation as an SEC doormat under their second-year head coach.
They nearly earned a signature victory last season against Georgia, blocking a punt in the waning moments before the Bulldogs’ defense stiffened and prevented a game-winning score. That near-miss -- and the confrontation that erupted shortly after the game ended -- caused Vanderbilt defensive end Johnell Thomas to remark Saturday that the Commodores have “unfinished business” and prompted defensive back Trey Wilson to say he understands why it would appear that there are higher stakes for their rematch.
“To an outside perspective, probably so,” Wilson said. “… I’m not a big shouter. I don’t do too much rah-rah-rah. My rah-rah-rah is what I do between the lines. People are going to talk. I just show up and play.”
Chirping between the two sides is expected, Richt said, but neither team can afford to allow the emotions of the game to affect their play.
“I think the big thing is to make sure that we just concentrate on playing football and not all the extracurricular because those things turn into penalties,” Richt said. “I don’t want anything to take focus off of executing and take focus off doing the right things fundamentally and knowing your job and taking care of your responsibilities, so that’s what we’re going to focus on.”
But make no mistake, both sides want this win more than normal after what happened last year -- even if they made a half-hearted effort to hide that desire on Saturday.
“We’ll be ready,” Richt said. “They’re a really good team and we have a lot of respect for them. We know we’d better be ready.”