If it weren't for their hideous, all-pervading orangeness, the Volunteers could be a mirror image of the Bulldogs right now: storied program struggling mightily to keep its head above water; O-line issues headlining an incredibly frustrating season on the offensive side of the ball; just got done having their hearts ripped out in a winnable road game; and oh, yeah, they're both still looking for their first SEC win of 2010. Which should make for an atmosphere fraught with desperation in Sanford Stadium this weekend, if nothing else. First team to 14 wins?
TENNESSEE'S DEFENSE, BY THE NUMBERS
Against the pass: 169.2 yards allowed per game in 2009 (12th nationally); giving up 219.8 per game this season (73rd).
Against the run: 149.5 yards per game in 2009 (65th); currently allowing an even 157.0 per game (75th) in 2010.
REASONS TO BE EXCITED
For all the wrists being slit over Georgia's soul-murdering loss to Colorado last week, it's worth mentioning that, oh yeah, the offense actually looked better than it has in weeks -- when A.J. Green was in the game. Which he should be this Saturday, and if the trainers can keep him conditioned and fully hydrated, he might even play the full 60 minutes. For the most part, Colorado didn't have the horses to both stack up against the run and account for A.J.'s presence in the deep passing game last week, and given Tennessee's much-publicized depth issues across the board, they may not be able to, either; the Vols have been strong in the first half through five games, giving up only 34 first-half points, but they've given up a total of 84 in the second half.
Of course, the personnel shortcomings sown by years of half-assed recruiting on the part of Phil Fulmer are only part of the issue; the other part is injuries, which have turned UT's starting lineup into the kind of M*A*S*H unit we're usually accustomed to seeing from, well, Georgia. Particularly up front, the Vols are in a tremendous bind -- Ben Martin, one of only two upperclassmen on the Vols' starting front four, was lost to an Achilles injury in August; his neighbor at defensive tackle, sophomore Marlon Walls, is effectively out for the season with a near-identical injury; Victor Thomas, Walls' replacement, is officially listed as "day-to-day," as is DT Gerald Williams. Caleb King showed a real spark in an otherwise disappointing rushing attack last week, at least until his game-killing fumble with under two minutes remaining; if he (or any of the Georgia RBs) can hold on to the ball, they could make some headway against the Vols.
QB Aaron Murray may also get a reprieve from the pressure that's dogged him over the last few weeks, as the ailing Tennessee defensive front has averaged just a single sack per game through the first month of the season. A.J. Green's return opened up plenty of opportunities in the middle of the field for Murray last week in Boulder, and we even saw some passes go to the tight ends for once. Considering that the Tennessee pass defense has given up 725 total yards and an aggregate 121.3 passer rating over the past three weeks to Florida's struggling John Brantley and the backup QBs for UAB and LSU, Murray could have the kind of breakout game he's deserved for weeks now -- if the coaching staff shows him enough confidence to let him air it out.
REASONS TO WORRY
Reasons to worry? How about the Georgia offense's entire season (except for the UL-Lafayette game, of course) up to this point? They should've opened up the passing game against South Carolina; they didn't. They should've been able to run the ball against Arkansas and Mississippi State; they couldn't. They should've been able to take advantage of prime scoring opportunities in each of those games and against Colorado, but either an agonizing fumble or an extraordinarily ill-timed sack took them out against each of those opponents. At this point, the Dawgs simply can't take anything for granted on offense no matter how many opponent weaknesses it looks like they should be able to exploit.
That goes double for a running game that has been, at best, fitfully productive since the opening-day rout of the Ragin' Cajuns. Even after a relatively inspiring performance against Colorado, the Dawgs are still mired at 10th in the SEC (and 76th nationally) with just 137 rushing yards per game, and it's not guaranteed to get any better against the Vols. They may be hurting big-time up front, but the Vols have a very solid, and very smart, starting linebacking unit in 2010 (Nick Reveiz, LaMarcus Thompson and the awesomely named Herman Lathers), along with two others who have starting experience. They are a tenacious bunch whom you rarely see trying to arm-tackle people, so all of Georgia's RBs (and their blockers) had better be on their best behavior.
Same goes for A.J. Green, as junior cornerback Art Evans is almost certain to be on him like an electric blanket all afternoon long, and free safety Janzen Jackson -- whom many people have suggested might have even more potential than his former partner in crime, top-five draft pick Eric Berry -- will be hunting heads as well. Georgia can't count on dominating the field-position battle, either, even though the Vols have been suspect in covering punt returns this year; Branden Smith suffered his second concussion of the season last week in Boulder and won't play against UT.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Georgia RB Caleb King vs. Tennessee MLB Nick Reveiz. Despite the late fumble against the Buffaloes, King is clearly the best thing Georgia's running game has for it right now, and he looks to retain the starting position this Saturday. If last week's game is any indication, A.J. Green may keep the Vol defense honest enough to open up some running lanes for him, but he can't take anything for granted, particularly up the middle. Reveiz is an extremely smart player who always seems to have a knack for being right where the ball is, and once he gets there, he doesn't let up until the ball carrier is flat on his face and the whistle has sounded; he's emblematic of a Tennessee defense that has refused to say die this year despite obstacles that seem to grow bigger and more imposing every week.
(Tomorrow we'll look at Georgia's defense versus the Tennessee offense. After last week, there'll be no gloating about any offensive struggles on the part of the opponent, thank you very much.)