Tennessee Volunteers vs. Georgia Bulldogs Complete Game Preview
The last time Tennessee and Georgia stepped onto the football field together last Oct. 5, the Volunteers were a half-yard away from scoring a major upset.
Instead, the Dawgs escaped with a 34-31 overtime victory after a would-be Pig Howard touchdown was fumbled out of the side of the end zone, costing UT possession, the lead and the game all in one fell swoop.
This year, UGA again is a solid favorite playing at Sanford Stadium. But the Vols are a much better team than they were a season ago when coach Butch Jones was just beginning to build his program at UT.
Georgia, however, looks extremely stout again and is healthier than the last matchup against the Vols.
With the SEC East wide open and nobody looking particularly dominant, this early-season showdown is a pivotal game in which the winner will have a prime advantage in the race to Atlanta. Here's everything you need to know.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 27
Time: Noon ET
Place: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Georgia
Radio: Vol Network, Bulldog Network, Sirius/XM 91
Spread: Georgia by 18 points, according to Oddsshark.com.
Tennessee Keys to Victory
Keep Justin Worley Upright
It took four days and no telling how many full-body ice-bucket challenges for UT's senior quarterback to recover from being turned into the personal punching bag of Eric Striker and the rest of Oklahoma's defense.
He was bullied, battered and bruised.
But the Tennessee offensive line appeared to get a bit better as the game against the Sooners went on, and with Butch Jones saying the starting five against OU will be the same group moving forward, they can learn from each other and grow.
Jones told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) about sticking with Kyler Kerbyson at left tackle, Marcus Jackson at left guard, Mack Crowder at center, Jashon Robertson at right guard and Coleman Thomas at right tackle:
I just think it's important in moving forward that they know, 'Hey, here it is. Let's build some consistency. Let’s build some continuity and let's work to get better.'
Robertson and Thomas are freshmen who will have some growing pains, but the Vols must find some things in pass blocking that protects Worley and keeps him on the field.
Georgia is tied for fifth in the league with eight sacks thus far, so the Bulldogs can get after the passer. UT has to combat that and keep its leader in the huddle.
Third Down for Real
Tennessee's defense hasn't been perfect so far, but it is so much better than a season ago that it's beginning to be viewed as a team strength.
In no place is that improvement more evident than in third-down conversions.
The Vols have played two pretty good offenses (Utah State, Arkansas State) and one great one in Oklahoma so far, and they've stayed consistently brilliant. UT is allowing opponents to convert third downs just 23.26 percent of the time, second nationally behind only Oregon State.
UT was just a bit above its average against OU, allowing the Sooners to convert three of their 12 opportunities.
Considering the Vols are 18th nationally in opponents' first downs, that number is even more impressive because that means they've stepped up in plenty of opportunities.
Georgia is going to present the biggest challenge so far in that area with the waves of talented running backs it can throw at opponents. The Vols have to keep Todd Gurley and Co. in check, get off the field and let the offense go to work against a very suspect UGA defense.
Georgia Keys to Victory
Ride Your Thoroughbred
Sometimes, it's unclear whether head coach Mark Richt and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo remember they've got one of the nation's top offensive weapons at their disposal.
Star junior running back Todd Gurley is third in the SEC with 402 rushing yards and leads the league with a 134 yards-per-game average, but he tends to disappear in pivotal moments.
Bobo took some considerable heat for the Dawgs failing to score on 1st-and-goal from the South Carolina 4-yard line in a crucial drive that arguably cost UGA the game. That drive consisted of a fake pitch to Gurley and a naked bootleg where Hutson Mason drew an intentional-grounding call.
When you've got a weapon like Gurley, he has to get the ball. Bobo took blame for the failure to score on that drive, according to The Red and Black's Cody Pace:
It's a bottom line business and the bottom line is, we've got to score. We had three shots at it and didn't get it in the end zone, so that's ultimately my responsibility and my fault. It was something we thought would work at the time and obviously it didn't work. We had two more downs to execute plays and that didn't work either.
Gurley is averaging 9.8 yards per carry, and the coaching staff definitely wants to keep him healthy and on the field for the entire season. But few can stop Gurley when he gets the football, and it would do Bobo a lot of good to remember that in crucial moments.
UT's defense is much better, but the Vols haven't faced Gurley yet, either.
Make the Secondary a Primary Concern
Which Georgia defense is going to show up?
The Bulldogs unit that smothered Clemson in the second half of a season-opening win and shut out lowly Troy? Or the one that struggled in the first half against the Tigers and displayed more craters than the moon against South Carolina?
It may be the difference between a win and a loss against the Vols.
UT star receiver Von Pearson has been ruled out by Butch Jones, and Josh Smith's status is "in serious question," according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker. Those are huge losses for a UT team needing weapons to exploit some weaknesses in UGA's secondary.
If the Dawgs can put together a strong game on the back end of their defense, the Vols may not have enough rushing prowess to keep it close.
Tennessee Players to Watch
As the season has gone on, the Vols' star freshman tailback has gotten better.
Against Oklahoma, he finished with 121 total yards, including a 43-yard and a 29-yard run as well as a 30-yard catch on a screen pass against a jailbreak blitz.
With UT using its tight ends lead-blocking for Hurd, he finally got a little bit of room and was able to make some things happen in the open field. He has impressed everybody with his play thus far, including his head coach, who keeps giving him more reps than senior Marlin Lane.
As the game wore on against Oklahoma, Hurd got stronger.
"I think that can be my strong point sometimes," Hurd told The Daily Times' Grant Ramey, "because (defenders) might get tired of meeting me in the hole every time."
The Vols need another big game from Hurd in Athens to have a chance.
Of all the much-anticipated matchups in this game, one stands out.
Former UT wide receiver and Knoxville radio personality Jayson Swain spoke for the masses when he tweeted last week: "#Vols LB AJ Johnson Vs. #UGA RB Todd Gurley. Can't Wait."
Indeed, games like this are why Johnson came back. He leads UT with 29 tackles and has been all over the field during the first quarter of the season, playing at a different athletic level than he has throughout the other three years of his career.
The way Gurley hits the hole like his life depends on it, there will be violent collisions, and Johnson will see his fair share. These are the kinds of games in which Johnson has thrived in his career, and UT needs one of his best performances Saturday.
Last December, Tennessee won one of the most hotly contested recruiting battles in the Southeast when it beat Georgia for in-state receiver Josh Malone.
This Saturday could be Malone's breakout party.
With Von Pearson out and Josh Smith questionable for the game against the Dawgs, UT needs a dynamic receiver to take some of the pressure off Marquez North. Malone has the talent and is the next in line.
It's time for him to play like one of the top receiving youngsters in the nation.
Georgia Players to Watch
Todd Gurley is the superstar. Keith Marshall is the super sub who has yet to play. Nick Chubb is the ball of muscle who took the nation by storm with a couple of dazzling runs against Clemson.
But Michel is the home-run hitter. And the Vols would do well to account for the freshman who rounds out an embarrassment of riches in UGA's backfield.
Michel had 155 yards, including a 75-yard run and three touchdowns against Troy, and he's a burner who can get to the second level in a hurry. The Vols desperately need to be able to rotate linemen and linebackers in what has been a slim substitution rotation thus far.
Fresh legs like Michel's could be major factors in the second half.
It's not a common thing for inside linebackers to lead teams in sacks, but the 6'2", 231-pound senior who was named to Phil Steele's All-Conference third team last year is an uncommon talent.
He has 24 tackles and three sacks to pace the Bulldogs, and Herrera has thrived in Jeremy Pruitt's 3-4 scheme.
With all the issues UT has had allowing sacks—and especially blocking linebackers—Herrera could cause some problems for the Vols' young, inexperienced line up front.
The Vols need to know where he lines up on every play and keep him away from Justin Worley. If Herrera can fight off blocks and get in the backfield, he'll get to the statuesque Worley.
Tennessee has to be thankful that Aaron Murray no longer directs the UGA offense, but fifth-year senior Mason hasn't done a bad job at all this season.
He has taken care of the football despite not being anywhere near as dynamic as his predecessor.
The Vols are most likely going to stack the box against the run and make Mason beat them. He has plenty of talented weapons to throw the football to, which is going to put extra pressure on a UT secondary that has been up to the challenge thus far.
Can Mason put the team on his shoulders? The Vols hope they are able to put the game in his hands.
What They're Saying
Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told Volquest.com's John Brice (subscription required) on "The Nation" radio show on Sunday night about Justin Worley:
That was one of the toughest performances I've seen from Justin. We've stressed physicality of the game, we've stressed toughness both mental and physical as it relates to the quarterback position…and I was happy with the way he brushed himself off, got right back in there, stepped into his throws. His patience in the pocket was good, and from that standpoint, I thought he made tremendous strides.
The Vols are trying to rebuild basically from scratch, and developing a winning mentality is one of the biggest hurdles that is discussed much less than on-the-field improvements.
But after losing 34-10 to Oklahoma on Sept. 13, a team full of youngsters not used to losing was frustrated and unhappy. It's a small thing, but it is important, according to sophomore Cam Sutton in The Associated Press' Steve Megargee's article (via The Telegraph):
You can see a big change in our locker room. The mentality that we have, we're just a very hungry team. We want it all. Losses hurt. (For) last year's team losses hurt, and a few minutes after the game or so you'd (be) down, and the next thing you'd know, they're laughing and 'hurrah-ing' like we won. This year you can see a big difference.
The Tennessee-Georgia rivalry always has been one of immense respect, and UGA senior quarterback Hutson Mason heaped praise on the Vols this week, according to the Athens Banner-Herald's Marc Weiszer:
If you don’t take Tennessee seriously, they will beat you and they will ruin your season. We understand that this is not Tennessee of the past couple of years. Coach (Butch) Jones has done a phenomenal job of quickly turning around that program and they've got talent.
The grumbles may be loud enough to hear across the state of Georgia when it comes to Todd Gurley's touches, but he wasn't needed in a 66-0 rout of Troy, so he barely played.
Gurley finished with 73 rushing yards on six carries, and he will be fresh and ready to go against the Vols. UGA coach Mark Richt said, according to Weiszer:
That was good. I don't know how he felt about it. We didn't really ask him, but hopefully he understood and hopefully he'll have more energy (this) week. We're going to need it.
The Vols haven't beaten Georgia since Lane Kiffin's 2009 UT team thumped the Dawgs 45-19 at Neyland Stadium, and while most of the battles since have been close, the directions of the programs weren't.
Now, UT looks like it's finally on the upswing.
But to reach that next level where Georgia resides, UT has to break through and beat its rival.
The Bulldogs have plenty of holes on defense and suffer enough lapses that you never know which team is going to show up.
That being said, UGA also boasts waves of talent and depth. Years of running a consistent, established program highlighted by recruiting success have left the Bulldogs dripping with talent.
Besides Alabama, this is the most talented team Tennessee has remaining on its schedule. While the Vols are certainly capable of upsetting UGA, asking them to do it in Athens is a tall order, especially with Georgia boasting so many weapons in the running game.
If the Vols get off to a quick start, they can make it a game in a contest that is shaping up to see the winner take early control of the SEC East. But given how sluggishly they started in Norman, Oklahoma, they've got to prove they can.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Tennessee 20
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.