Topping the in-state rival just got a lot tougher for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and secondary coach Willie Martinez.
When the two joined Mark Richt's inaugural staff at Georgia in 2001, a chief objective was to regain a stranglehold on the rivalry with Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs quickly succeeded and have won 10 of the past 11 meetings, but VanGorder and Martinez recently reunited at Auburn, where the challenge is always obvious.
Alabama and Auburn have combined to win the past three national championships, with the Crimson Tide capturing two and expected to be in the hunt for another this year.
"The first time at Georgia when we played Georgia Tech, when I walked on the field, I felt a difference in the programs, and I'll kind of leave it at that," VanGorder said. "I see the Auburn-Alabama rivalry as more of a level field and a great rivalry in respects to the chances of winning in looking at the records through the years. This one has been back and forth, and I've always felt that the emotions of this game from the outside looking in are a bit more intense than Georgia-Georgia Tech. I'm looking forward to being a part of it."
The Tigers begin their fourth spring practice under head coach Gene Chizik on March 23 and their first with VanGorder and Martinez, who were together with the Bulldogs from 2001 to '04 and helped produce 42 wins, two SEC East titles and one league crown. Georgia was fourth nationally in scoring defense in '02, third in '03, when VanGorder won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant, and ninth in '04.
VanGorder spent the past four years as defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, while Martinez wound up spending nine seasons under Richt, including five as coordinator after VanGorder left for his first NFL job. Martinez was fired after the 2009 regular season and spent the past two seasons as Oklahoma's secondary coach.
The two longtime friends have backgrounds that include stints at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Central Florida, and each has racked up his share of red in the wardrobe over the past decade, but that has changed abruptly.
"My closet is all blue now," Martinez said. "It looks good. I look good in blue, and my wife looks really good in blue. The first time I laid eyes on Kim, she was wearing blue, so I'm fired up to see her in blue."
VanGorder and Martinez are fired up to be together again, though coaching at Auburn is very different from their initial dip into the SEC.
"I was a no-name, and people questioned whether or not my resume even qualified me for the Georgia job," VanGorder said. "Quite honestly, I had the same questions, because I didn't know if I was ready for this or if I could do this. That was kind of my motivation, and coming back into the SEC years later, I've done it and I've worked my way into the highest level of football in the world.
"I'm a much better coach today at Auburn with way more experience and way more knowledge. My motivation at this point in time is to give to Auburn and give these kids the experience and tools that I've learned to where it's a good situation for everybody."
Auburn and Georgia are scheduled to meet Nov. 10 in Auburn, which will be the 10th game of the 2012 season for each team. The Bulldogs rolled to a 45-7 win last season and need one more victory to square a series that began in 1892 and is the Deep South's oldest rivalry.
It should be an interesting time for VanGorder and Martinez, whose two daughters graduated from Georgia, as well as for Richt and longtime assistants Mike Bobo and Rodney Garner.
"I don't know if it could get much more emotional for our team and for our coaching staff," Richt said. "Every time we play those guys it's huge to us, and we're always hoping when we play that game that it's meaningful for both teams. When you know guys really well and you know them and love them, it probably adds a little something to it on a personal level."
Said VanGorder: "I loved my time there, and I have a lot of respect for Mark Richt. He is really the guy who gave me my big break in this profession, but that's kind of where it ends, because I will view that game far more from an intellectual standpoint than any kind of emotional standpoint as we go into it."
Georgia's defense in 2000 had all 11 starters go on to play in the NFL. VanGorder and Martinez didn't inherit tackles Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud or linebacker Kendrell Bell from the '00 unit, but they did take over the development of end Charles Grant, linebackers Boss Bailey and Will Witherspoon and defensive backs Terreal Bierra and Tim Wansley.
Then the likes of end David Pollack, linebacker Odell Thurman and safeties Sean Jones and Thomas Davis moved through the ranks, and now Auburn fans are hopeful VanGorder and Martinez can replicate their success of a decade ago. Auburn had a very young defense last season with two senior starters, and it often showed, as the Tigers went 8-5 despite ranking 81st nationally in yards allowed (408 per game) and 79th in scoring (28.92).
"I don't really feel the pressures of what I do at this point in time," VanGorder said. "I've worked hard and established a knowledge base that allows me to have a comfort with all of that. I'm older now, and I've been through the ringer a little bit, so my perspective has changed.
"What hasn't changed is my excitement, and I am excited to be here at Auburn."