For the last three trips, it’s been “good ol’ Rocky Top” for Georgia, as the Dawgs under Mark Richt have never lost a game in Knoxville.
It’s a huge game for both schools we’re looking at on Saturday (and if any of the rumors emanating out of Knoxville are close to being accurate, huge may be an understatement for Fulmer and/or his staff). The loser, barring some ridiculous set of circumstances, is eliminated from the SEC East race, may very well never see the Top 25 for the remainder of the season and is looking at a berth in the Chik-Fil-A Bowl (Jabari Davis’ favorite postseason venue) at best.
More so than for any game this year, I find that I’m having a hard time getting a handle on what to expect in Knoxville. So I’m going to indulge in an old practice by taking a (virtual) sheet of blank paper, drawing a line down the middle and listing what I don’t like about Georgia’s chances in the game and what I do like about them.
Grounds for concern:
- Erik Ainge and the UT passing attack. Quite frankly, it’s good. In fact, it’s the strongest thing the Vols have coming into this game. You can make an argument that Ainge is the best QB in the SEC – he’s certainly had less support from his surrounding cast than has Woodson or Tebow, and Ainge’s numbers are right there with them. Cutcliffe is an above-average offensive coordinator who knows how to get the most out of the passing game. That the Vols are first in the conference in passing offense is no fluke. Mix in the fact that Georgia has shown a tendency to get burned by the deep ball in every SEC game it’s played to date, and it’s a definite area of worry. One other thing to note: in four games, Tennessee’s offensive line has surrendered only two sacks.
- The bye week. I think what Richt said to Ching is about right. It may not be a deciding factor in a game, but, all things considered, it’s an advantage (and it better be for Georgia in Jacksonville later this year).
- Do or die time at Tennessee. It’s apparent there’s a lot of pressure on Fulmer and his staff to win this game. If these guys were a bunch of tyros, this might be a negative, but they’ve been around the block. Knowing that the ax could fall tends to sharpen the mind for those kind of folks.
- Georgia’s defensive line. It disappeared for much of the game against Ole Miss. Martinez’ defensive strategies revolve around being able to get some pressure from the front four. Adams was allowed to get comfortable in the pocket and had good success against the Dawg defense for much of the day. Ainge is a better QB than Adams.
- Georgia’s running game vs. Tennessee’s rushing defense. This is easily the biggest mismatch coming into the game. Tennessee is ninth in the conference in rushing defense, giving up a whopping 5.2 yards per carry. Coincidently, that ypc figure matches Mississippi’s, the team that Georgia raked for 328 rushing yards last week.
- Special teams. This is another area in which Georgia has a big advantage, particularly because of the punting game. Georgia is third in the SEC in punt return yardage; UT is last. Georgia is also third in the conference in net punting yardage and Tennessee is tenth, even though Colquitt’s punts average more than a yard and a half longer than Mimbs’ do. As Dawg fans are fully aware, this has been a long standing problem for Tennessee.
- On the road again. Mark Richt knows how to prepare a team to play in an SEC opponent’s home arena. Like the bye week, it’s not a controlling factor, but it’s an advantage.
The muddy middle:
- Intangibles. They’re all over the place. The one that I’m having the least sense of its importance is the bye week for UT. Sure, it’s an advantage, but the Vols have so much shoring up to do in so many key areas that you wonder if two weeks is enough to address everything.
- Georgia’s passing offense against Tennessee’s passing defense. I don’t care how much of a stud Eric Berry is, anytime a team is starting a true freshman at safety it’s an indication that there’s a depth issue in the secondary. Vinson will start at one CB slot for them. He’s a converted WR who’s seen limited action on defense. The question is, can Georgia’s passing attack take advantage of UT’s lack of experience? The Dawgs are eighth in the conference in passing yardage and completion percentage and seventh in passing efficiency, despite having only played one team with a very good secondary.
- What does Chavis do? Ordinarily, his defensive philosophy is similar to Martinez’, although Vol fans would probably argue he’s even more passive, but South Carolina demonstrated that the most effective way to defense Georgia is to attack the line of scrimmage hard in order to overwhelm the offensive line, disrupt the running game and make Stafford antsy with his protection.
That didn’t help too much, I’m afraid.
Anyway, here are the keys to the game, as I see ‘em:
- Tennessee’s speed. In each of their two big losses, the Vols looked to be the slower team. On defense, the changes in the secondary are clearly meant to upgrade UT’s speed back there. The big question there is whether that’s enough to offset the inexperience of the DBs. On offense, I expect to see a lot of Coker at RB. I also think that Cutcliffe is going to try to involve Kenny O’Neal in the game at WR (after all, it’s time for that famous Tennessee laxness over player behavior to start paying off). UT desperately wants to show some ability to make the deep pass play a weapon. If that happens, I don’t think it will open up the running game as UT hopes, but I do think it will loosen the intermediate passing game, as I believe we’d see Martinez respond by employing the same soft zone that Mississippi worked against after Adams hit the long ball with Wallace for their TD.
- Turnovers. Georgia’s second half implosion last year was fueled by these. Forget about giving Tennessee a short field over and over again, the real problem was taking the ball out of Georgia’s hands on offense. UT’s defense wasn’t exactly a brick wall for much of that game, either. This game is just as likely to be a shootout as last year’s was. You don’t want to give away chances to score in a game like that.
- It’s the running game, stupid. Brown and Moreno have been the horses all year. Ride them until you can’t ride them any more.
- Focus, focus, focus. Georgia needs to have it for sixty minutes. Special teams, turnovers, tackling and blocking – it all needs to be there consistently to overcome a Tennessee that has to be on the edge about winning this game. Mississippi wasn’t talented enough to take advantage of Georgia’s lack of focus last week. Tennessee is.
Gun to my head time: the over/under on this game is something like 56.5. I like the over.
Emotionally and mentally, I think a close game favors Tennessee, so if the result is something on the order of 33-30, I think UT gets the win. On the other hand, if Georgia sticks with using Brown and Moreno to control the clock and wear down UT and gets up 7-10 points in the second half, I think the Dawgs go on to win. UT hasn’t been a team that’s handled adversity well this season.
It really could go either way. But I’ll let my homer side come out here, say Junior and Lulu go home with heavy hearts again and call it Georgia, 34-24.
Admit it – this never gets old for you, either.
UPDATE: I’m trying to stay humble here, but my man Keltic Gator over at Orange and Blue Hue has no need to, since his team put a 59 point thrashing on the Volunteer defense. He lays the smack down pretty good here. This is his wrap up:
Here’s hoping that Coach Homer Simpson . . . . errrr Philip Fulmer can restore the pride and spirit to his program quickly. I’m sure he’s busy preparing a pregame speech for Saturday’s game against Georgia right now. Hopefully he can inspire them with goals like holding Georgia to 7 touchdowns or less and staying within 15 points in the 4th quarter. It’s all about baby steps for the Vols these days.