Forget SEC East implications, Tennessee and No. 12 Georgia have something to prove Saturday.
The visiting Volunteers fell flat on the road in Week 3 against No. 4 Oklahoma and have yet to prove that second-year head coach Butch Jones has made serious headway after a 5-7, two-conference-win season a year ago.
Meanwhile, Georgia beat up on Troy in what amounted to a bye week, but the sting of a three-point loss to South Carolina two weeks ago has the Bulldogs on the hunt to prove themselves worthy in the SEC, not to mention in the hunt for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
There is clearly plenty at stake in one of the week's marquee matchups, and not just within the confines of this season. On the field, programs in transition will need key performances to gain serious momentum before a deeper dive into SEC play.
Demons of the Past
Mark Richt and the Bulldogs understand better than anyone what a trap game this may turn out to be.
The team is angry over the loss to the Gamecocks, but last year's contest against the Volunteers should weigh heavily on those still on the roster. Georgia won by a field goal in overtime against Jones' lowly team but lost running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley for the season in the process.
The Bulldogs finished the rest of the season at 4-4.
A more desirable result this time around means the Bulldogs must heavily lean on junior back Todd Gurley. He owns 402 yards and four scores on a ridiculous 9.8 yards-per-carry average already, and those numbers would be higher had the staff not pulled him in the game against Troy to preserve his health.
Gurley's 131 yards and a score on 20 totes in the loss to South Carolina speaks volumes to his ability against top defenses. It also sounds as if his eyes have been set on this matchup for a few weeks now, as captured by Anthony Dasher of UGASports.com:
Tennessee is quite the test, too. Against Oklahoma, the Volunteers limited top Sooners backs Keith Ford and Alex Ross to a 3.7 yards-per-carry average or less although Samaje Perine (who broke out for huge numbers a week later against West Virginia) did find room for 67 yards on nine carries.
At home, the ground game needs to prove capable once again because Tennessee has a habit of not going down easily.
Tennessee just so happens to have a few strengths in areas many would consider weaknesses for Georgia.
That is what makes the spread here so strange and perhaps explains why it has started to shift in the visitors' direction after opening, as illustrated by Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee:
Bad news for the Bulldogs—Tennessee has the pure athletes to take advantage of the team's propensity to give up deep passing plays. The numbers for the Volunteers' top three receivers—especially the per-catch averages—show that the iffy Bulldogs secondary will get a major test:
|Josh Smith||10||135||13.5||40 (TD)||1|
Considering the Bulldogs gave up 271 yards and three scores to Dylan Thompson, Marquez North (who caught a touchdown pass against Georgia last year) figures to give the secondary fits.
That works on the opposite end of the spectrum, too. Gurley figures to get his on the ground, but senior Hutson Mason may prove to be a liability once again. Look at it this way: South Carolina allowed 832 passing yards in its first two games, but Mason failed to cash in on a weak unit and managed just 191 yards.
Tennessee touts a strong pair of corners in Cameron Sutton and Justin Coleman. Also remember that Tennessee has had two weeks to prepare for this matchup in particular.
Jones has done an incredible job in a short amount of time by turning the tides in the recruiting war. It has yet to truly show in the win column, but it will sooner or later. That may begin Saturday if Georgia cannot mask its weaknesses at home.
When: Saturday, September 27, 12 p.m. ET
Where: Sanford Stadium, Athens, Georgia
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):
- Over/Under: 55.5
- Spread: Georgia (-17)
Team Injury Reports
|Tennessee Injury Report|
|Cody Blanc||WR||08/07/2014||will miss the entire season||Out||Achilles|
|Jacob Gilliam||T||09/02/2014||will miss the remainder of the season||Out||knee|
|Treyvon Paulk||RB||09/22/2014||was dismissed from the team||Out||disciplinary|
|Von Pearson||WR||09/23/2014||is expected to miss Saturday's game against Georgia||Out||ankle|
|Josh Smith||WR||09/23/2014||is expected to miss Saturday's game against Georgia||Out||ankle|
|Ethan Wolf||TE||09/21/2014||is questionable for Saturday's game against Georgia||Questionable||knee|
|Georgia Injury Report|
|Merritt Hall||FB||08/14/2014||will miss the entire season||Out||concussion|
|Keith Marshall||RB||09/21/2014||is questionable for Saturday's game against Tennessee||Questionable||leg|
|Malcolm Mitchell||WR||08/02/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||knee|
|Jonathan Rumph||WR||09/23/2014||is expected to miss Saturday's game against Tennessee||Out||hamstring|
|Justin Scott-Wesley||WR||08/02/2014||is out indefinitely||Out||knee|
|Jon Taylor||DT||07/23/2014||was dismissed from the team||Out||disciplinary|
Injury reports courtesy of The Sports Network (via USA Today).
As always seems to be the case between these two, it is safe to presume this one will be hotly contested throughout.
A few timely big plays from the Tennessee offense are to be expected, but a star player such as Gurley usually takes control in such a contest. Last week was essentially practice for the real thing this week, and if he takes more than 20 handoffs, Tennessee will eventually fold.
The Volunteers are certainly on the right path and already strong in two areas that are critical to success in the current era at the top of college football. But right now, especially on the road, Jones' team does not have the overall balance that suggests it can overcome the Bulldogs.
Prediction: Bulldogs 34, Volunteers 30
Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.