ATHENS – The most direct route between the universities of Georgia and Tennessee is Scenic Highway 441 running straight through the Appalachian Mountains. That road, resplendent with colorful fall foliage this time of year, is all littered with the carcasses of Georgia seasons gone by that began with great promise only to be blotted with a big orange splat right about now.
- On Oct. 6, 2007, No. 12 Georgia had just annihilated Ole Miss 45-17 when it strode high-and-mighty into Knoxville, only to fall 35-14.
- On Oct. 7, 2006, the 10th-ranked Bulldogs were 5-0 after a hard-fought victory over Ole Miss and favored against No. 13 Tennessee in Athens. The Vols won 51-33.
- In 2004, Georgia was undefeated, ranked No. 3 in the land and a heavy favorite when the 17th-ranked Vols visited Sanford Stadium. Tennessee left as a 19-14 victor and took the Bulldogs’ ticket to the SEC Championship Game back to Knoxville with them.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart doesn’t have to know that history to know the pitfalls that could await in the confines of Neyland Stadium this Saturday. Once again, the No. 7-ranked Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC), coming hot off a thoroughly dominant 31-3 win over Mississippi State, show up as heavy favorites against Tennessee (3-1, 0-1). But they’re also the team with the most to lose, and the Vols have their backs against the wall.
“Humility is a week away” is a phrase Smart likes to use, a carryover from his days at Alabama. The Georgia coach has used it a lot this week.
“If you try to live in the past based on your last performance, humility is a week away,” Smart said. “It doesn’t matter. No team cares what you did last week.”
There’s enough recent history in this series to have the Bulldogs’ full attention. Tennessee has won the last two. Of course, Georgia dropped a 34-31 decision last year on a Hail Mary after leading with 10 seconds to play. But that just fell in line with the last several.
The average margin in the last six games in the series is 5.2 points, with three of the last four being decided by three points and none by more than eight. The Vols have won the last two after Georgia had won five straight.
“All my experiences with Tennessee has been it’s a close game,” senior tailback Sony Michel. “It’s an SEC opponent. We’ve got to always prepare for a four-quarter game, a hard-nosed game. We know this game is going to the fourth quarter, so we’ve got to start off fast and finish strong.”
Here’s what has to happen for Georgia to keep its dreams alive:
Contain John Kelly
First and foremost, the Bulldogs must get a handle on John Kelly. The 5-foot-9, 205-pound junior running back leads the SEC in rushing with 112.5 yards a game. He’s also the Vols’ leading receiver with 18 catches and leading scorer with 6 touchdowns. So their offense runs through him.
Stopping Kelly is not an easy task. He almost singlehandedly carried Tennessee against Florida. He had 141 yards rushing, 96 receiving and a touchdown in that game, which the Gators won 26-20 with a 63-yard, end-of-regulation touchdown pass.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, stopping the run is an area in which they excel. They’re third in the SEC in rushing defense while holding teams to just 97.5 yards per game, and that’s while facing some opponents who are really dedicated to running the football. Inside linebacker Roquan Smith is averaging nearly 7 tackles a game and Georgia’s front seven has proven a tough match for everybody they’ve faced. That should be in their favor again against a UT offensive line that includes two sophomores and a freshman.
Answer secondary challenge
For the fifth consecutive week, Georgia will be facing some derivation of the zone-read, spread-option attack. That’s good news considering how well the Bulldogs have defended it so for. But under Butch Jones, the Vols want to run first, play fast and then hit you with an explosive pass play. And they have the players to do that.
The biggest issue for Georgia will be Marquez Callaway. The 6-foot-2, 209-pound sophomore from Warner Robins averages a whopping 24.8 yards per catch and leads the Vols with 3 TD catches. Another sophomore has emerged for Tennessee this season in Brandon Johnson. The 6-2, 193-pounder is tied with Kelly for the team lead with 18 catches. Meanwhile, the Vols still have tried-and-true senior Josh Smith, a fifth-year senior and fourth-year starter.
The Bulldogs are fortunate that Jauan Jennings, the Vols’ Hail Mary hero of a year ago, remains sidelined with an injury. Regardless, Georgia’s secondary has not been tested to the extent it will be Saturday. It’ll help getting back starting cornerback Malkom Parrish. But the Bulldogs will have to prove they’re up for the challenge.
Strike a balance offensively
Tennessee comes into the game with a reputation for not being good against the run and not being very good on defense in general. While the statistics might tell you that – they’re allowing 242.2 yards rushing a game – they’re more than a little skewed from the Vols’ opener against Georgia Tech. The option-oriented Yellow Jackets piled up 535 yards and 6 TDs on the ground, but Tennessee held on to win 42-41.
But the Vols have been significantly better against more traditional offenses. Florida rushed for 168 yards against Tennessee, the most the Vols have allowed since the Tech game. And linebacker Daniel Bituli is particularly effective stopping the run. The 6-3, 240-pound sophomore is third in the SEC with an average of 9.5 tackles per game.
The key for Georgia is to not be too one-dimensional on offense. As always, the Bulldogs will seek to establish the run. But they showed progress in the play-action passing game against Mississippi State and will need to demonstrate continued improvement against the Vols.
Tennessee is pretty good at generating pressure on the passer and is fifth in the league with 10 sacks. But the Vols will be missing starting free safety Todd Kelly Jr. due to injury. Georgia needs to take advantage.
Three of the last four games in this series have been decided by three points. It would follow then that the kicking games are going to be important. They always are.
Georgia has been dominant in that regard this season. But the Bulldogs remain largely untested in the area of opposing teams’ return games. That’s because Rodrigo Blankenship is in the middle of a streak of 14 consecutive touchbacks. Punter Cameron Nizalek has a similar streak of fair catches and no returns going on his punts, which are averaging 44.7 yards.
It’ll be important to keep that up as Tennessee, as always, features several dangerous returners. The Bulldogs are fortunate to not have to face Evan Berry, an All-America returner who’s out with an injury. But Ty Chandler has a 91-yard kickoff return TD to his credit and Callaway leads the SEC in punt returns with a 13.9-yard average.
The Vols have struggled on placement kicks. They’re 3 of 7 on the season.