ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham was Nick Saban's defensive line coach for three seasons in the late 1990s when the two were at Michigan State, and there have been similarities between them since.
Alabama made Saban the highest paid coach in college football history in January 2007, and Georgia made Grantham its highest paid assistant ever in January 2010. Both coaches somehow turn "all right" into one syllable when trying to make a point, and both offered apologies during their first seasons at their current locales -- Saban for cursing during a halftime interview against Tennessee and Grantham for flashing a choke sign to then-Florida kicker Chas Henry.
Yet their biggest shared trait may be how each needed a transition year before rolling. Alabama endured a 6-6 regular season in '07 that included a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe, and Georgia had a 6-6 regular season last year that included a loss at Colorado.
"When you change a system, it takes a while for the players to get comfortable with the system," Saban said. "The mental errors and missed executions are sort of the things that really hurt you, but when the players get more comfortable, then it becomes sort of a part of them and they understand it, and you start playing better.
"I also think that as coaches when you play teams and you develop a history of what they like to do, you do a better job of playing against them as well."
Alabama won its first 12 games during the 2008 season and has been at an elite level since, and Grantham has turned Georgia into an elite defense in his second season. Entering Saturday's regular-season finale at Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs rank second nationally in rushing defense (allowing 81.3 yards a game) and fourth in total defense (263.5).
They also rank second nationally in third-down defense after finishing last in the SEC a year ago.
"This has been very enjoyable, because I've seen young men change their habits and I've seen them create mental toughness," Grantham said. "I've seen them learn to play the game the way you're supposed to play, and that's with effort and energy. They've had some success, and that kept them believing.
"Belief is a powerful thing, because once you start believing, you can do a lot of things."
Georgia's meteoric rise defensively is due to players being more experienced in the second year of a 3-4 scheme, a pair of key additions and several personnel moves that paid off.
The Bulldogs were anything but depleted defensively following a 10-6 loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl last New Year's Eve. There were seven returning players who made six or more starts last season, including the talented cornerback tandem of Brandon Boykin and Sanders Commings, and other promising players who had fewer starts, such as safeties Alec Ogletree and Shawn Williams.
"The linebackers and the DBs were really the ones last year who had to handle all the coverages and different things they had to check to," junior defensive end Abry Jones said. "When I'm not in the game now, I can look out there and see Boykin and those guys really communicating, keeping it short and simple and going out there to play. We're not thinking as much this year."
The two notable additions are nose John Jenkins, who transferred from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who sat out last season after playing his freshman year at Southern Cal. The 6-foot-3, 351-pound Jenkins has amassed 19 tackles and four tackles for loss and has teamed with Kwame Geathers to give the Bulldogs a more potent presence at the point of attack.
Yet the standout newcomer is Jones, who has 58 tackles and with 12.5 sacks is just 1.5 shy of the single-season program mark set by David Pollack in 2002. It would be difficult to find a Georgia player more appreciative of Grantham, who coaches the outside linebackers.
"He brings energy and is everything you want in a coach," Jones said. "He puts you in the right position. Now, he may break you down, but he's going to build you back up. He wants you to make plays and be excited about it, and that's what you want."
Grantham's personnel moves include shifting DeAngelo Tyson from nose to end and Ogletree from safety to linebacker. Yet his best decision may have been the hiring of inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who was put to the test when Ogletree and Christian Robinson got hurt in the first two weeks but didn't miss a beat with Michael Gilliard and Amarlo Herrera.
A year after Bulldogs fans wondered if $750,000 was too much for Grantham, there is no complaining about that financial obligation now.
"You've got to learn how players learn, and you've got to recognize how they think," Grantham said. "That's a big thing, because as a coach you're a teacher, and you've got to understand how they respond to things. You want to teach them and you want them to play hard, and then from a systematic standpoint, the continuity of our staff and the ability of those guys to teach their positions have allowed us to really continue to develop and grow."
Said Saban: "I've always thought he was one of the best coaches I've ever had on any staff. He certainly has a lot of very positive experience in the NFL at a lot of places, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He's done a fantastic job there, because they were kind of hurting when he went there, and they've really developed into a stellar group."