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Georgia-Tennessee Preview: When The Volunteers Have The Ball

Ordinarily this'd be the part where I tell you hey, buck up, sport, Tennessee's offense has been even worse than Georgia's this year! Which it pretty much has been. But so were Mississippi State's and Colorado's, and, well, you obviously saw what happened with them. (How can I tell? The red marks on your arms where you cut yourself to see if you could still feel pain, of course. I've got them too.) Not that it necessarily impacts Georgia's performance this Saturday at all, but let's run the numbers anyway.

Passing: 226.3 yards per game in 2009 (46th nationally); averaging 196.2 yards per game (78th) across their first five games of 2010.
Rushing: 157.2 yards per game in 2009 (54th); averaging 136.2 per game this season (also 78th).

Does your eyelid twitch every time you so much as hear a mention of how badly Georgia's offensive line has performed this season? Well, just be glad we don't have Tennessee's O-line -- it wouldn't be an eyelid twitch, it'd be a full-blown seizure. The Vols were already coming into 2010 with a set of five brand-new starters, among them two freshmen and a sophomore. Then center Cody Pope suffered a concussion against Oregon. Then guard JerQuari Schofield broke a bone in his foot. Now sophomore left tackle Dallas Thomas has been hobbled by an ankle problem, and when asked on Monday where he'd go if Thomas got knocked out of the game, coach Derek Dooley responded, "Right now, we'd play with four."

Needless to say, these issues have manifested themselves in some unpleasant ways on the field. Tennessee is currently fourth from the bottom in D-IA in sacks allowed -- they've given up 19 already, and the season isn't even half-over yet. The UT running game, too, is languishing near the bottom, less productive than any SEC competitor save for Arkansas. QB Matt Simms isn't a statue like, say, Ryan Mallett is, but whatever mobility he's got has been utterly neutralized by the way even semi-competent pass rushes have been able to vaporize his protection (even lowly UAB, one of the weakest defenses in FBS for three years running, managed to take Simms down five times). Justin Houston and his fellow headhunters in the Georgia front seven have been stymied by some mobile QBs over the past few weeks, but they'll get their opportunities on Saturday.

And even when he's been able to get the passes off, Simms has been less than spectacular. He's only thrown three interceptions this season, which is fewer than you'd expect had you seen him in spring practice, but he's ranked 81st nationally in passing efficiency, and four of his six TDs this year came against UAB and Tennessee-Martin. Even if Georgia's struggling pass rush doesn't get to Simms directly, it could rattle him just enough to force him into some poor decisions.

If you've observed Georgia's defense as it's worked through the difficult transition to a 3-4 alignment, you may have noticed that they have trouble bringing down opposing running backs. Well, Tennessee's Tauren Poole might be the best one they'll have faced so far this year. Poole has battled a bum wheel himself over the past few weeks, but he's a strong runner and not a fan of going down on the first contact. He's also quite adept as a pass-catcher, and that kind of versatility has stymied the Bulldogs' front seven in the past. It's a bit much to expect him to pile the whole team on his back this weekend, but he did manage 109 yards, a TD and a 4.5-yard per-carry average against LSU's stifling defense in Baton Rouge last week -- far and away the best performance an opposing RB has had against the Tigers all season. Georgia will have to get in position to clog Poole's running lanes and do a more thorough job of tackling this weekend, or Poole will crack the century mark again, open things up for Simms, and turn the game into yet another festival of third-down conversions that leave an entire generation of Bulldog fans bald by the end of the third quarter from all the hair they pulled out.

It would also be unwise for Georgia to underestimate Tennessee's receiving corps. That unit hasn't had a lot to work with in the way of expertly thrown passes, but they're extremely athletic and have made the most of the chances that have come their way; at 6'6", 253 pounds, Luke Stocker makes for an imposing safety valve for Simms in the short passing game. Georgia's defensive backfield has not been great in pass coverage this season, and when they have broken up passes, too often it's been thanks to some kind of egregious personal foul (ahhh, it's like Willie Martinez never left). It'd be a shame if the front seven got some consistent pressure on Matt SImms, only for him to get off some decent passes and make our secondary look like chumps.

Georgia LB Akeem Dent vs. Tennessee RB Tauren Poole. Inside linebacker Dent leads the Georgia defense in tackles and is second in tackles for loss; let's hope and pray he has a bunch on Saturday, because if the game's leading tackler is someone like Bacarri Rambo or Jakar Hamilton, that probably means Poole was able to blast through our front seven and spend all afternoon baiting our secondary into a decidedly not-fun game of tag. Tennessee's offensive line may or may not have enough oomph to let Poole make anything happen up the middle, but he's been dangerous enough on the outside to compensate for that, and his skills in the short passing game could give Matt Simms the kind of breathing room we really don't want him to have.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.