A familiar face will invade Sanford Stadium in late September when Mississippi State visits the home of the Georgia Bulldogs.
Todd Grantham, who was Georgia's defensive coordinator from 2010 to 2013, is back in Southeastern Conference football after spending the past three years at Louisville. His hiring in January by Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen was actually more of a swap, with Peter Sirmon having moved to Louisville after spending one season in Starkville.
"I think we were fortunate to get someone of Todd's caliber at Mississippi State," Mullen said after the conclusion of spring practice. "We went through a process. We met, and we kind of hit it off. You look at his record and his reputation as a defensive coordinator, and it's fantastic, and it was also important that he fit in staff-wise with my philosophy of the program and how our staff is going to interact.
"He did a great job of that this spring, and I thought our players really responded well to him. I think we're going to have the opportunity to have a much-improved defense this season."
Grantham is the sixth defensive coordinator in Mullen's nine seasons at MSU, following Carl Torbush, Manny Diaz, Geoff Collins, Chris Wilson and Sirmon. Diaz guided the defense in 2010 and again in 2015, leaving the first time for Texas and the second time for Miami.
Mississippi State yielded 40 or more points four times in its last six games last season, allowing 109 combined points on consecutive Saturdays against Alabama and Arkansas and needing all the offense quarterback Nick Fitzgerald could produce to survive Samford 56-41. The Bulldogs ranked 110th nationally in total defense, 93rd in scoring defense and 120th in pass defense.
Rebounding from last season's 6-7 record will be challenging given Mississippi State's home schedule of LSU, BYU, Alabama and Ole Miss, as well as trips to Georgia, Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas. Yet a challenge is what Grantham desired.
"We're going to play some of the top teams in the country," Grantham said earlier this year in a news conference. "It's really easy to get where you want to go — beat the teams on your schedule, win your conference championship and then you have the ability to go play for a national title. This program has won, and it wasn't too long ago (2014) that we were No. 1 in the country. We have had a history of having good defensive players here, a lot of NFL draftable guys here.
"We want to re-establish that and get back to that. Being a part of re-establishing that identity, being able to be a part of the most competitive league in the country and being with a head coach that had done it before were all things that were appealing to me."
Grantham became appealing to Georgia fans during his second season in 2011, when the Bulldogs finished fifth nationally in total defense (277.2 yards per game), fifth in interceptions (20) and third in third-down defense (28.9 percent). Georgia won the SEC East that year, its first division title since 2005.
That defense was headed by linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree and largely returned intact for 2012, but the Bulldogs never quite dominated due to early-season suspensions and late-season struggles against the run. The Bulldogs returned only two defensive starters in 2013, when Grantham's final season became known for chaotic moments such as Auburn's 73-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 and Nebraska's 99-yard touchdown pass in the Gator Bowl.
Grantham still will have Georgia ties this season, with State having signed defensive end Chauncey Rivers of East Mississippi Community College and safety Jonathan Abram of Jones County (Miss.) Junior College. Rivers and Abram began their respective careers in Athens.
Mississippi State signed nine junior-college players in its 2017 class that was ranked No. 19 nationally by 247Sports.com, with seven of those nine being defenders, but Grantham is downplaying their potential impact this fall.
"We're all first-year players," he said. "It's a new system, so whether you were in juco or played here last year, it's all the same. So in a lot of ways, the juco guys are on the same playing field as the guys that were here last year, because the system that we're putting in is totally different."
Grantham faced Georgia after his first season in Louisville, when Nick Chubb shredded the Cardinals for 266 yards on 33 carries in a 37-14 Bulldogs rout at the Belk Bowl, but Louisville did lead the nation that season with 26 interceptions. Louisville tallied 58 interceptions in Grantham's three seasons, the most of any team nationally, and finished among the top 15 teams against the run all three years as well.
In last season's 63-20 humbling of Florida State, the Cardinals held Dalvin Cook to 54 rushing yards.
"Coach Mullen has built a winning program in the most challenging conference in the country," Grantham said. "Along with our staff, I look forward to re-establishing the Bulldog defense as one of the top defenses in the country and making the fans of Mississippi State proud."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.