October has arrived for the Tennessee Volunteers, and that means it's time for SEC play. The first test on this four-game stretch is the Georgia Bulldogs this Saturday.
The winning team will have its first notable victory of the year. Together, Tennessee and Georgia are winless against ranked teams but have mopped the floor with lesser opponents.
Georgia had high hopes going into the season, but two losses to start the season has put those on hold. Meanwhile, the Vols had the notion of beating Florida the first time since Casey Clausen, but youth, coupled with a devastating injury to Justin Hunter, stalled the hope.
A win in Neyland Stadium this Saturday is likely to vault the Vols in the polls, perhaps high enough to receive its first top 25 ranking since September 2008.
Here is a preview of the game and the advantage of key matchups.
The Tennessee Volunteers rushing game has been the subject of a lot of criticism this season, and it's well-deserved. Even after a refreshing 199-yard output against Buffalo last week, the Vols are dead last in the SEC in rushing.
That simply won't do if the Vols want to win on Saturday. In their three wins, the Bulldogs have allowed 51 yards rushing per game. In their two losses, they have allowed 191 yards rushing per game.
While an effective rushing attack is a steadfast football pillar, it's clear that the success or failure of the Vols rushing game against the Bulldogs could determine the winner.
Tauren Poole looked faster than he has all year last week. Was it because it was Buffalo, or has he found his stride? Can Marlin Lane contribute with eight to 10 nice runs? What about using Tom Smith's speed?
I'm afraid there are too many questions for the Vols here. Advantage, Georgia.
Back in 2008, Orson Charles made his decision to attend Georgia over Tennessee, who was being coached by Lane Kiffin at the time. As a staunch supporter of the Volunteers, I must admit that Charles made the best decision of his life.
Avoiding Kiffin is always the right call.
Now Charles is one of the most versatile tight ends in the SEC, the second leading receiver on the Bulldogs' roster. With only 16 receptions, Charles has the most touchdowns on his team with four. He makes it count, just like Justin Hunter did back in the days when he was healthy...
Sorry to bring that up again.
In fact, Charles has caught a touchdown in every game that he has played in this year. That means that whoever is matched up against him will have a huge task, especially in the red zone. Keeping the ball from Charles on the goal line could save a touchdown in a big moment.
I don't expect the Vols to make Austin Johnson leave the middle too much, but I also don't think that freshmen Curt Maggitt or AJ Johnson will be asked to guard the junior tight end.
That leaves Daryl Vereen and Dontavius Sapp as two highly important second-stringers in the game. Slight advantage, Georgia.
Quick! Name the top five rushers in the SEC this year. Okay, so you got Marcus Lattimore and Trent Richardson as givens. You bet that Chris Rainey is in there and probably Michael Dyer, too. Keep going down the list, and Vick Ballard as well as the quarterback Chris Relf are there, but you're missing someone.
It's Isaiah Crowell.
Joining a long list of fantastic SEC running backs, Crowell is behind only Lattimore, Richardson and Dyer in rushing this year, an impressive group to be in as a freshman. He's averaging over five yards per carry this year, including a 7.4 average against the vaunted South Carolina defense.
But you know, the Tennessee Volunteers' defensive line has been darn good this year, too. Chris Rainey's big day can hardly be attributed to poor line play as Florida is notorious for running sweeps left and right until the cows come home.
Malik Jackson's play and leadership have been understated this year. In the SEC home opener, he'll make a big stop in a key moment. Slight advantage, Tennessee.
At the beginning of the season, I claimed that Aaron Murray was the best quarterback in the SEC, hands down. While he's very good, I forgot about the guy on my own team. At least, Murray is a top three quarterback in the conference with Tyler Bray and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson.
Murray's 13 touchdown tosses this year are second in the conference. His 1,100 passing yards and 152.8 quarterback rating are both good for third. Clearly, the guy is good.
But he also has had some interception problems in the early going. Only Stephen Garcia of South Carolina has more. Murray is coming off a three-interception outing against Mississippi State and has thrown a pick in every game except the blowout against Coastal Carolina.
Prentiss Waggner has yet to make his mark on the 2011 season, but the junior safety was tied for third in the SEC in interceptions. He has the skill and is likely to get more time in this big conference matchup.
When you pair Murray's interception tendency this year with his first trip to Neyland Stadium, you get a recipe for potential booms for the Vols. Advantage, Tennessee.
Tyler Bray has shown his pass-happy approach a bit too often in the past couple games for the Tennessee Volunteers. I counted at least four passes that should've been intercepted in Florida, and one red-zone pass that would've been stolen by a better team last week.
That simply can't happen this Saturday against the Georgia Bulldogs' safety Bacarri Rambo.
Besides having the best name in SEC football, Rambo is tied for the conference lead in interceptions and fifth by just three yards in interception yards. He ain't Eric Berry, but he's darn good. You better believe offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is making sure Bray knows about Rambo this week.
With the emergence of freshman DeAnthony Arnett as a reliable, slippery, Wes Welker-type receiver, Rambo's value as an interceptor goes down. Arnett's range doesn't get into the secondary, a blessing in disguise.
Bray and Da'Rick Rogers have been building a special connection that can only be had between a quarterback and his receiver. Rogers is second in the SEC in receiving yards and has played on game fewer than the leader. Advantage, Tennessee.
According to General Neyland, the kicking game is where the breaks are made. He's exactly right. It should be a boring time where possession changes hands, but it's been far too exciting for the Tennessee Volunteers in the past weeks.
Tennessee has had a punt blocked in each of the last two games. Matt Darr got extremely lucky against Buffalo and simply picked the ball up and ran, but does anyone in his right mind think that Georgia is going let that happen?
Furthermore, I'm completely off the Michael Palardy bandwagon, if there ever was one. The guy is going to cost the Vols a game whether it's from a missed 25-yard field goal, (another) kick off out of bonds or both.
Until Tennessee proves to me they can get their act together, I have to conclude that the it's advantage Georgia.
The redshirt senior placeholder Chip Rhome can keep the ball in bounds and kick it through the uprights with ease. Wish he'd get a chance.
Two months ago, I predicted that the Tennessee Volunteers would lose to the Georgia Bulldogs but beat LSU. I think the Vols are electric on offense and too well coached to lose all of the big SEC home games this year.
But I also don't see top-ranked LSU losing to Tennessee in Knoxville any more.
Derek Dooley, son of legendary Georgia coach Vince Dooley, will one day be the Big Orange's version of his dad. This is the biggest game of his young career and win would his first top 25 ranking.
Tennessee 24, Georgia 23