The fifth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0 SEC) are getting set to host the Tennessee Volunteers in their annual SEC East rivalry game. Although both teams appear to be heading in opposite directions, this game could be the start of a great season or the start of a horrific losing streak for either team.
Georgia heads into Saturdays showdown with great confidence after thumping the Vanderbilt Commodores 48-3 last week in Athens. Moreover, it appears the Bulldogs are on a collision course against the No. 6 ranked South Carolina Gamecocks in what would be the most hyped Georgia-South Carolina game in the series’ history. However, if the Bulldogs are not focused on Saturday’s game against Tennessee, their BCS National Championship aspirations will be over.
The Volunteers have looked anything but impressive over the last two weeks. After getting thumped by the Florida Gators 37-20 two weeks ago, Tennessee struggled to put away the Akron Zips last week. Despite the Vols sporting a 3-1 record, the general perception is that this team is not playing any better under head coach Derek Dooley in season three than they did in season two.
I am a firm believer in trends. Coming into this game, the trends all point to a Georgia victory. Even though Tyler Bray is a third year starter, he has still not won an SEC game on the road. Dooley is 0-11 against ranked teams and it has been eight years since the Vols have defeated a Top Five football team.
With that said, don’t count the Vols out just yet. They have a gunslinger for a quarterback and the most dangerous one-two punch at wide receiver in the SEC in Justin Hunter (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and Cordarrelle Patterson (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) who will both be first-round draft picks in the near future.
While Hunter and Patterson get most of the press, they’re not the only weapons in the passing game. Tight end Mychal Rivera is one of the SEC’s best and kept several drives alive in last season’s match-up, when he had five catches for 85 yards. Moreover, slot receiver Zach Rodgers has improved dramatically this season and is quietly putting together a strong campaign.
Statistically, the Vols have improved greatly this season in the running game. They are averaging 172.5 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. Compare that to last season when Tennessee only averaged 2.8 yards per carry and 1,081 total rushing yards. However, against Florida, the only proven defense the Vols have played, they had an anemic 83 yards on 28 carries (3.0 YPC).
The running game will need at least 150 yards to keep the Vols in this game.
The Vols’ offensive line has been solid this season, but far from great. They are prone to missing assignments when facing the Blitz. They will have their hands full with Jarvis Jones this week who has been the SEC’s most dangerous pass-rusher over the past two seasons.
With the big play potential that the Volunteers have, this game is within reach. However, their defense will need to step up in a big way. Georgia has the most dangerous offense in the SEC, and it is not even debatable. Now that the Bulldogs have established a running game to go along with Heisman hopeful Aaron Murray, an average defense will be shredded by them every time. The Bulldogs have the No.1 ranked offense in the SEC, scoring 47.5 points per game.
Against this high powered offense, Tennessee will have to pick its poison. Do they first try to stop the running game? That will be a difficult task versus the dynamic freshman duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
Gurley currently leads the SEC in rushing (101.5), scoring (10.5) and all-purpose yardage (164.2) per game. Marshall is off to a great start, as well, having carried the ball for 264 yards on just 42 carries (6.3 YPC) with three touchdowns. Florida rushed for 336 yards on 43 carries versus Tennessee this season and three players had over 80 yards rushing in that game.
What if Tennessee stacks the box? That leads to another problem for the Vols defense. Four games into the season, the Bulldogs already have three wide receivers with 260-plus yards, and they have seven players with at least one reception of over 35 yards.
Moreover, the Bulldogs are expected to use more of the four-wide receiver sets this week with the return of Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell, who was the Bulldogs best wide receiver in 2011, had to fill in at defensive back for the first four games this season.
Mitchell had 45 catches for 665 yards and four touchdowns last season. Against Tennessee in 2011 he had three catches for 126 yards, including a 71-yarder for a touchdown.
Of course, the unit everyone is ready to see is the Bulldogs defense. It appears that the Bulldogs will be at full strength for the first time this season. The players who have been suspended this season were not just average players. 2011 All-American Bacarri Rambo will bring another level of physicality to this Bulldogs run defense, and he led the SEC with eight interceptions last season.
Alec Ogletree was a preseason All-SEC player, who is ranked as the No. 19 player in the nation on Mel Kiper’s draft board. The best Tennessee can hope for is that this defense will be rusty. Consider the talent this defense has: According to Kiper’s big board, Jarvis Jones is the No.1 prospect on his board at any position. John Jenkins is rated as the No. 1 defensive tackle in college football. Ogletree is the No. 2 inside linebacker. Shawn Williams is the No. 2-rated safety in the nation and Rambo is No. 3.
In my opinion, the Vols will find some offensive success early. Remember, the Vols lead the SEC in first downs with 25.5 per game. However, I think they are going to have much more difficulty moving the ball on the Georgia side of the fifty. As a result, they will settle for field goals early.
This will prove to be a problem as Georgia continues its success on the offensive side of the football. The Bulldogs have too many weapons and Tennessee has not looked good on the road in multiple seasons. The Vols are 1-7 in SEC road games under Dooley. Their only win was against Vanderbilt in 2010.
Score Prediction: UGA 45, UT 17
Stat Prediction: Aaron Murray 300-plus yards and four total touchdowns