Tennessee vs. Georgia: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2016

Tennessee vs. Georgia: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch

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    Coming off the program's biggest win in more than a decade, Tennessee must find a way to maintain its focus for yet another crucial SEC East showdown.

    Whoever made this schedule didn't do the Volunteers any favors.

    UT upended Florida after 11 years of futility, and now must travel to Georgia—a place it hasn't won at in 10 yearsfor its first true road test of the season. 

    Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart faces his first week coming off a loss. UGA ran out of luck against Ole Miss, getting dominated in every phase to lose 45-13 following narrow wins against Nicholls State and Missouri.

    Now, the Dawgs are angry. But are they more focused?

    "I can promise you they'll show up and give an 'A' effort next week, Smart told 247Sports' Jake Rowe, which makes you wonder why they've not been doing it all along.

    Regardless, Georgia will be thinking payback following last year's loss at Neyland Stadium after leading 24-3. Let's take a look at all you need to know for the game.

    Date: Saturday, October 1

    Time: 3:30 p.m. ET

    Place: Sanford Stadium

    TV: CBS

    Radio: Vol Network, Bulldog Radio Network, SiriusXM 190

    Spread: Vols by 3, according to Odds Shark.

Tennessee Keys to Victory

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    Press the issue

    Against the Gators, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop had his defensive ends doing all sorts of different things in a struggle-filled first half where the Vols allowed 21 points.

    After the break, they focused on rushing UF quarterback Austin Appleby and wound up disrupting the Gators' entire offense. Not only did Corey Vereen play one of his better games, star end Derek Barnett took over.

    Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason is a freshman, and Shoop needs to treat him like one, dialing up the heat early and often.

    UT's ends should have help, too. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Monday he "fully anticipates" outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin to play at UGA, according to SEC Country's Jesse Simonton.

    Open book

    Once the Vols got down by a bunch against Florida, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord took off the restrictor plates.

    Tennessee responded.

    UT opened up the offense, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs took over with 399 total yards and five second-half touchdowns. It was similar to last year's game against the Bulldogs where the Vols were down and Dobbs took over.

    Maybe somebody needs to whisper in DeBord's ear before the game, "Hey Mike, you're down by 21. Now go call plays." The Vols seem to respond to a more open offense, and maybe the Florida game will renew DeBord's trust in his offensive playmakers to make things happen.

    If that's the case and Dobbs gets going with his legs and arm, the Vols are tough to stop. 

    Four quarters

    In 2015, the Vols couldn't finish games. 

    This year, they can't start.

    But, man, are they ever making adjustments when it matters. Still, that won't get it done against the best teams, and the Vols know it.

    That's why they must put together their most complete game. If they do that, it's difficult to see UGA matching the Vols' talent, depth and leadership. But if UT plays like it did in the first 3½ games of the year, the Bulldogs have to be considered the favorite.

Georgia Keys to Victory

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    Get fine on the line

    It's been a forgettable start for Georgia's new-look offensive line.

    Not only have the Bulldogs allowed 12 sacks already, which is tied for second-worst in the league, they've struggled running the ball at key moments, too.

    Against Missouri, Georgia only managed 101 rushing yards. In Saturday's lopsided loss to Ole Miss, the Bulldogs did finish with 230 yards on the ground, but much of that was after the Rebels built an insurmountable lead. 

    Now, they've got to try to stop Barnett's bunch, a Vols defensive line that has done a good job turning up the pressure recently. They've got to keep Eason's jersey clean and allow him time to throw downfield.

    Feed off the frenzy

    Tennessee is walking into a hostile environment, much the same way Florida was at Neyland Stadium last weekend.

    The Vols can't let Sanford Stadium get rocking. It's been a decade since they won in Athens, and just because UGA hasn't looked all that great yet doesn't mean it isn't talented. Smart has a group of former marquee recruits, and they can get going quickly.

    If the crowd has reasons to stay loud and in the game, the Bulldogs can feed off all that energy. The Vols must take the crowd out of it early and keep Georgia wondering about itself.

    "Yeah, morale wasn't up coming home," Smart said of the Ole Miss postgame atmosphere (via WRBL.com). "Shouldn't be. We just took a tough defeat. (Morale) Wasn't good, but it's improved. … Part of my job is making sure they understand that that loss has been put behind us."

    Hit 'em deep

    The Gators hit three long passes against the Vols, and then they stopped taking shots downfield for some reason.

    Partly, it was because the Vols adjusted and ran two deep safeties most of the second half. But Georgia has to believe it can attack the perimeter vertically. With speedsters like Terry Godwin and Isaiah McKenzie who can stretch the field, UGA must try to exploit the Vols cornerbacks.

    If the Bulldogs can, they'll hit some big plays against UT's defense.

Tennessee Players to Watch

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    Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

    Shy Tuttle

    A season ago, Tennessee's star defensive tackle was enjoying a breakout season when Georgia offensive lineman Brandon Kublanow ended his year with a cheap shot that led to a gruesome leg injury.

    Tuttle returned against Virginia Tech this year, and he's now played in three games. The sophomore has picked up where he left off, disruptive as ever on the interior. But will he be looking for blood this weekend in his return showdown with Kublanow?

    Jones told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan he doubts revenge will be on UT's mind.

    Again, it's unfortunate that, that happened, but Shy has recovered from it. And you can’t focus on that. You have to focus on the task at hand and winning your one-on-one matchup and your preparation. I don't even think he’s thinking about that, and neither are we. Again, it's a new game. It’s a new season. I'’s a new opportunity, so I don’t see that even entering in the thought process.

    Asked about the messages he's received about the hit, Kublanow wouldn't comment.

    "I'm not really sure," Kublanow said when asked about the hit, according to the Telegraph's Jason Butt. "I'm not going to talk about it. I'm going to focus on the 2016 game."

    Josh Malone

    For the past three years, Tennessee has been looking for a playmaking receiver, and now the Vols seem to have found one with talented junior Malone.

    The 6'3" pass-catcher committed to the Vols over Georgia a couple of years ago, and he already has five touchdowns this year—second in the league. He's scored at least once in every game and is a major weapon.

    If he keeps it up, he'll be a player every defense must scheme against. Malone has the ability to go deep and is displaying the aggressiveness to go across the middle. He's turning into a complete receiver and Dobbs' top target.

Georgia Players to Watch

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    Nick Chubb

    Everybody should remember McKenzie at receiver because he can do a lot of damage, especially against a Tennessee secondary that is without Cameron Sutton.

    But the biggest weapon on Georgia's team is still Chubb—the junior running back who shredded knee ligaments on the first play against the Vols last year and still isn't 100 percent.

    He's shown some signs of returning to his old self, but Chubb isn't there, yet. There's also the possibility he won't play against the Vols yet again after suffering an ankle injury that cost him much of the Ole Miss game.

    Seth Emerson of Dawg Nation wrote "it looks like" Chubb will play against the Vols, but nothing is certain yet.

    "We're obviously hopeful he'll be able to do something," Smart told Emerson. "But we won’t know more until later in the week."

    Chubb is fifth in the league with a 105.5-yard average.

    Trenton Thompson

    A year ago, two of the most ballyhooed commitments in the entire recruiting class were Georgia defensive tackle Thompson and Tennessee DT Kahlil McKenzie.

    So far, it looks like Thompson is developing a little more quickly.

    The disruptive interior force is second on UGA's team with 20 tackles—a strong number for a defensive tackle. He also has a sack and is looking like the player many thought he would be when virtually every team in the nation wanted him.

    The Vols are coming off their best game on the offensive front against Florida, but they'll have to continue to improve if they're going to shut down Thompson. He has the ability to take over a game.

What They're Saying

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    Kublanow told Emerson he doesn't believe Chubb will miss this Tennessee game, if at all possible:

    “I'm pretty sure Nick's going to want to play this game, after what happened last year," Kublanow said. "This is what he’s been working for, so I expect a lot out of Nick, and I expect he expects a lot out of himself."

    Barnett dominated the second half of Tennessee's 38-28 win over Florida last Saturday, and he was honored as the SEC's co-defensive lineman of the week. Shoop raved about his junior defensive end to Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman:

    "It was just Derek saying, 'Climb on my back, I got this.' I'm not sure I’ve ever had a player take over a game quite like he did for us."

    A lot is expected of Eason, and even his coach is piling demands on him. Smart said after Ole Miss that Eason must progress faster if UGA is going to be successful, according to Dawg Nation's Chip Towers:

    I think he grew up some today. He took some shots today. It's the first time he's really been hit. He got rocked a couple times today, and that's what happens in the SEC. But he still fought, he still made some throws. He's still throwing off his back foot, and he's still got to fix some things.

    In football you're going to have guys that line up wrong. You've got to fix that. It's progress. But we need more progress, and we need it faster. But the kid took some shots today. He's a fighter and a competitor. We've just got to get him better, and we’ve got to help him, too.

     

    The normally vanilla Jones was candid with the media when asked about his team getting booed at halftime.

    "I know there’s a lot [of] people that didn't want me here at halftime," Jones said, according to SEC Country's Mike Griffith. "I get that, that’s part of the job, love is conditional, and then at the end of the game, everything flips, and that's why you have to keep things in perspective and keep grinding each and every day."

Prediction

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    This is a dicey situation for Tennessee, heading into such a hostile environment against a talented team yearning for a signature win under a first-year head coach. 

    It's also a venue the Vols haven't had any success playing in during recent seasons.

    All of that said, there are just too many questions right now to pick Georgia against a surging UT team. How are they going to get the offensive line woes fixed in time to play the Vols? When will its true freshman quarterback grow up? Are the running backs healthy? Can they keep from giving up big plays on defense?

    Nobody is questioning UGA's talent, but it's tough to see the Vols having a letdown after the Florida win. If anything, it should have jolted them awake.

    Last year, Joshua Dobbs was a matchup nightmare for the Bulldogs, and that was against a mostly veteran defense. This season, UGA is younger and has been out of position more than it was a year ago.

    If the UT offense continues to open it up a little and loosen up defenses with the downfield passing game, it's hard to not like the Vols in this one.

    Look for UT to go 2-0 in its gauntlet stretch of games with a big road win to make it two in a row against the Dawgs.

    Prediction: Vols 31, Georgia 23