ATHENS — Tennessee’s offensive upside to this point feeds into Georgia’s defensive weakness.
Virtually no one is giving the Vols a chance for the upset, and rightly so, the Bulldogs are simply too dialed in to overlook anyone.
But a closer game than expected — the opening line was 32 1/2 points — could happen at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium.
A couple of trends work in Tennessee’s favor despite the overall impression that the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs [4-0, 2-0 SEC] are the far superior team.
Tennessee [2-2, 0-1] ranks fifth in the SEC with 205 yards per game rushing, a nod toward the hard-nosed, pro-style attack first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt has asked offensive coordinator Tyson Helton and offensive line coach Will Friend to install.
“We have to run to win,” Helton said after he was handed a three-year guaranteed contract worth more than $1.2 million annually.
“What does that mean? At some point and time you have to put the ball down, and everyone knows you’re running the rock,” Helton said. “When it’s time to run it, we will run it and stick it in there, and we’re going to be good at it.”
The Vols rushed for 156 yards against Florida in a self-inflicted, six-turnover 47-21 loss despite trailing by double digits throughout the action, the 54 attempts evidence Pruitt is committed to the run game.
Tennessee’s problem has been a inability to check in and out of runs at the line of scrimmage effectively.
Quarterbacks like Missouri’s Drew Lock and Georgia’s Jake Fromm have the pre-snap read mastered, but the Vols look unsure in their new offense.
That uncertainty has led to a hit-and-miss run game that, if fixed, could make for a more competitive game.
The Bulldogs’ run defense has at times been suspect. Georgia ranks eighth in the SEC allowing 118.8 yards per game.
Another surprising stat: Opponents have generated more TFLs [tackles-for-loss] against Georgia , than the Bulldogs have this season .
Sometimes number can lie, as Georgia has had blowout wins over Austin Peay (45-0), South Carolina (41-17) and Middle Tennessee (49-7) that could skew statistics.
But a deeper dive shows Georgia allowed both Missouri and Middle Tennessee to average 5.3 yards on first-and-10 runs in the past two games.
It’s no wonder Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said his team should have been more committed to the run — South Carolina averaged 6 yards per carry on its final three first-and-10 runs in their Sept 8 home loss to Georgia.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart isn’t running from the fact that Georgia’s run defense needs improvement, and that has been a focus this week.
“We didn’t play the run game real good last week, and that’s what we pride ourselves on, and we gotta do a better job of attacking the run and play the run,” Smart said. “At the end of the day stopping the run is an attitude and a disposition you create within your team, and we didn’t have that.”
Missouri rushed for 5 yards or more on 13 of 19 rushes on first-and-10 downs.
“In the previous games I didn’t think it was a major problem,” Smart said. “We weren’t trying to stop the run a lot of times on Middle Tennessee — it was a different kind of game. We didn’t stop the run very well against Missouri. I’ll be the first to admit that.”
The Vols have better tailbacks than Missouri, starting with Ty Chandler, a sophomore with home run speed that Georgia recruited heavily.