Over at Rocky Top Talk, they’re running through Tennessee’s schedule this season and the Georgia preview is now posted. While it’s partisan (as it should be), it’s not rabidly so and the author makes a very cogent argument that this is the biggest game on the Vols’ slate this season.
… So on our schedule, this is the biggest game that we realistically have a chance in. That to me makes it more important than Florida. UCLA is of first importance, then Auburn…but if the Vols win those two, this becomes the greatest test. Kiffin and the Vols will be asked to clear the bar at higher levels each week…but if Tennessee walks into this game 4-1, the Vols will truly have a chance for a one-year turnaround. More than that, if the Vols want to get back in the annual SEC elite conversation, they don’t do that just with one stunning upset, but by consistently beating teams on their same level. If Georgia has pulled even with Tennessee, the most important thing Tennessee can do is make sure they don’t pull ahead. That starts this season in Knoxville.
Overall, that really is a good point. In a way you can argue that this game represents the orange analogue to the Georgia-Tennessee game of 2001. Just as Richt established his credibility as an SEC head football coach in that game (and David Greene established his credibility as an SEC starting quarterback), a win by Kiffin over the Dawgs this year would do much the same thing for him.
That being said, I’m a little skeptical of how far you can carry the analogy. And that’s because I’m not sure I buy into some of the premises implicit in the RTT post.
First of all, speaking to the comparison between Richt’s and Kiffin’s first seasons in the SEC, while it may not have been completely apparent to us in 2001, it certainly became obvious in 2002 that (1) Donnan had left the cupboard very well stocked for Richt from a talent and depth standpoint and (2) Brian VanGorder was a huge upgrade at defensive coordinator over anyone that Donnan had employed in that position. I don’t see where either of those conditions is operative in Knoxville this year.
And second, with all due respect, what’s with this “if Georgia has pulled even with Tennessee” line? Maybe I missed something, but only one of these two programs has suffered through losing seasons recently, only one of these two programs has actually won an SECCG this decade and only one of these two programs has made multiple appearances in BCS games in the past few seasons. Any talk of pulling even should have ended when Casey Clausen’s enrollment did.
Yes, I say that with the knowledge that UT is 3-2 in the last five games of the series. And, yes, I say that with the knowledge that the last two of those Tennessee wins were beatdowns. But that gets me to my last point here.
As storied a career as Monte Kiffin has had (and as good as Eric Berry freakin’ is), he’s not going to make the Vol defense appreciably better than it was last year. Tennessee hasn’t recruited as consistently well as Georgia has over the past four seasons – that’s why they spent the big bucks putting that staff together, remember? – and that, along with several departures from Knoxville this offseason, means that the Vols aren’t as talented and aren’t as deep as Georgia is (something that I thought was already noticeable watching last year’s game).
So what you’re left with when you hold up that “pulling even” sign is that David Cutcliffe pwned Willie Martinez. No argument there. But, since Cutcliffe has traded orange for blue, what that boils down to in the here and now is whether the current UT offensive brain trust can do the same kind of number on Georgia with inferior talent. While I can’t rule out that possibility, I don’t know how you can pretend it’s a given right now.