Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga., Sept. 29
Coach: Derek Dooley, 11-14 in two seasons at Tennessee, 28-34 overall.
Last year: 5-7 (1-7 SEC).
Best win: An early-season 45-23 shellacking of a Cincinnati team that went on to win 10 games.
Worst loss: The season-ending 10-7 loss at Kentucky -- the Vols' first loss to the Wildcats since 1984.
Returning starters: 20 (10 offense, eight defense, two special teams).
Stock watch for 2012: Rising, albeit slightly, and if only because it's highly unlikely both the Vols' game-changing receiver (Justin Hunter) and starting QB (Tyler Bray) will lose substantial chunks of the season to injury again. Tennessee is tied for second in FBS in terms of starters returning from 2011, and having the Bray-Hunter combo back will be a huge boost for an offense that all but ground to a halt without them last year. But a surprising amount of coaching churn in the offseason, plus a general sense that Derek Dooley is fighting for his job after two losing seasons in Knoxville, makes it seem like the Vols still have their backs against the wall despite being stocked with experienced players.
Best-case scenario (from the Dawgs' perspective): A Georgia secondary that will be back at full strength following a raft of early-season suspensions goads Bray into another mistake-filled game. letting the Dawgs roll to an early lead and cruise to the finish on the legs of their running backs. Bray has as much raw talent as any QB in the conference right now, but he just hasn't managed to put it all together against the Vols' better opponents -- in two seasons, he's amassed a 143.82 overall quarterback rating but just 117.4 against Tennessee's top rivals (Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina). Having both Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to throw to will help him out immensely, but the Bulldogs' front seven is nasty enough to goad him into some of those inexplicable decisions Bray's opponents have come to know and love.
Worst-case scenario: An improving Tennessee offensive line keeps Bray's jersey clean and lets him make plays to Hunter and Rogers, and the rebuilt Georgia O-line can't hold up their end of the bargain -- allowing the Vols to keep up on the scoreboard and sneak out of Athens with a close win. The UT run defense was mediocre at best last year, but you can blame part of that on the schedule -- teams like LSU, Alabama and Arkansas ran up big early leads on the Vols and then downshifted into run-heavy mode as they cruised to the finish line. Losing linemen Malik Jackson and Ben Martin hurts the Tennessee defense, but otherwise they return enough talent and experience to make life very difficult for Georgia if the Dawgs' offensive front hasn't managed to gel in the first month of the season. And while it would've been insane to think of the mighty Vols as a "trap game" 10 or even five years ago, the 2012 schedule slots them in between heated grudge matches against Vandy and South Carolina; if the Dawgs are looking ahead to the Columbia, through which the path to the SEC East title apparently runs these days, they could be vulnerable to handing Vince Dooley's boy an upset win.
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