Throughout the week, I have vacillated between the dour certitude that the Volunteers are going to embarrass the Bulldogs on Saturday night and the confident conviction that the Red and Black are going to win a barn-burner against the Big Orange this weekend.
Rather than continue to engage in wild speculation, however, I have elected instead to delve deeply inside the numbers to see what can be gleaned about a contest that pits the Southeastern Conference's second-ranked scoring offense against its top-rated scoring defense, its No. 1 aerial attack against its No. 3 pass defense, its best third-down offense against its best third-down defense, and the league's second-best team in total offense against its second-best team in total defense.
This ought to be good!
In so doing, of course, I don't simply offer a healthy portion of knowledge, nor do I confine myself to a cornucopia of data; rather, with apologies to RocketDawg for stealing some of his thunder, I go all-out and give you . . . Too Much Information.
The Passing Game
We might as well get the scary details out of the way from the outset. In short, Tennessee moves the ball well through the air and Georgia doesn't.
Erik Ainge leads the conference in passing yards per game (277.8) and total offense (1,352 total yards) while ranking second in the league in pass efficiency rating (179.91) and third in touchdown passes thrown (12).
If there is a silver lining to be found for the players in silver britches, it is that Ainge is a pocket passer with limited mobility who has tallied 37 rushing yards . . . in the wrong direction. That bodes well for a Georgia D that has recorded the conference's third-highest number of sacks (15), led by Charles Johnson with 3.5.
Before the season started, I offered a preview of Tennessee in which I asked, "Is Robert Meachem ready to have a breakout season as the Vols' playmaker? . . . Can Jayson Swain overcome two arthroscopic surgeries in less than a year?" The answer to each of those questions is emphatically in the affirmative.
To say that Meachem is having a stellar season is quite an understatement, as he ranks first in the league in receiving yards per game (115.4), second in receptions per game (5.4), and third in all-purpose yards per game (120.2). Only two Georgia players have as many receiving yards this season as Meachem averages per game.
Heck of an actor . . . heck of a receiver. (Photograph from The Movie Connection.)
For his part, Swain is among the top 10 S.E.C. receivers in catches per contest (4.4) and receiving yards per outing (75.6). Four Volunteers have at least a dozen receptions for the season and four U.T. players have hauled in a pass that covered 45 or more yards in a single bound. Meachem and Swain have five T.D. catches apiece, whereas the Bulldogs have four touchdown receptions total.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Tennessee boasts the conference's best passing offense. The Vols have the league's highest completion percentage (71.0%), highest average yards per pass (10.7), second-most first downs attained on pass plays (61), and third-most touchdown passes (13). We may take some solace in the fact that U.T. Q.B.s have thrown the S.E.C.'s third-most interceptions (5), as well.
No Bulldog appears among the league's 10 best players in any passing or receiving category. Only three Georgia players have as many as eight catches, including tight end Martrez Milner and tailback Danny Ware. Demiko Goodman has as respectable a stat line as any Red and Black receiver (six catches for 103 yards) and the bonhomme Demiko was virtually invisible before the Ole Miss game. Overall, Georgia ranks ninth in the conference in passing offense, managing just 163.6 aerial yards per outing and connecting on marginally more than half of the passes thrown (50.4%).
Joe T., take two.
There is, however, some good news:
The 'Dawgs are pretty darned good at pass defense.
In fact, the Red and Black give up just 133.4 yards per game through the air and have intercepted more errant throws (3) than they have allowed passes to be completed for touchdowns (2). Georgia's defense concedes the league's second-fewest yards per pass (5.4) . . . six fewer feet per toss than Tennessee allows (7.4 yards per pass).
The Running Game
Saturday evening's combatants are about equally adept---or equally inept---at running the ball. Tennessee has attempted eight more running plays than Georgia (172-164). The Bulldogs have gained two more rushing yards (667-665) and scored two more rushing touchdowns (9-7). Over the course of 60 consecutive minutes of football, the 'Dawgs rush for approximately 14 and a half extra inches of real estate, averaging 133.4 rushing yards per game to the Vols' 133.0.
The home team is marginally better against the run, conceding a single football field's worth of rushing yardage per game. Tennessee ranks seventh in the S.E.C. in rush defense, three spots behind the Red and Black, and 126.8 rushing yards are allowed by the Big Orange each outing.
Only Auburn has permitted fewer rushing T.D.s than Georgia (1); only Kentucky, Mississippi, and Mississippi State have surrendered more rushing touchdowns than Tennessee (6). The Volunteer defense has allowed more first downs on running plays (42) than the Big Orange offense has gained on rushes (37).
Both squads have concerns along the offensive line and an embarrassment of riches at tailback. U.T. freshman LaMarcus Coker and Bulldog junior Kregg Lumpkin rank among the conference's top 10 rushers and each has emerged as his team's "go to" guy. Coker averages 7.2 yards per carry and has covered 89 yards in a single scamper, yet he has just one touchdown in 2006. Lumpkin gains 5.6 yards per touch and has never managed more than 23 yards in a single rush, but he has a pair of touchdowns this season.
Let's give him 30 carries and see what he can do.
The Kicking Game
Both teams have strong placekickers. Brandon Coutu has connected on seven of his eight field goal attempts for Georgia and he is perfect from inside 52 yards . . . but he will be unavailable for Saturday's contest. James Wilhoit has split the uprights on six of his seven three-point tries, including three out of four from beyond 40 yards.
Both teams have strong punters. The Bulldogs' Gordon Ely-Kelso averages 43.3 yards per boot and has parked five punts inside the 20 yard line. The Volunteers' Britton Colquitt averages 47.1 yards per punt and has also put five bombs inside the 20.
As a Georgia fan, I wish Phillip Fulmer had more Clausens and fewer Colquitts. (Photograph from Sports Illustrated.)
The Red and Black, however, are stronger in the return game than the Big Orange. Georgia ranks second in the league in kickoff returns (25.4 yards per return) and first in punt returns (18.6 yards per return and two touchdowns). Thomas Brown ranks fourth in the league in kickoff return average (26.0 yards per return).
The Vols are in last place in the conference in kickoff returns (14.0 yards per return) and in ninth place in punt returns (6.8 yards per return). For whatever it's worth, no team in the S.E.C. has punted fewer times (13) or returned fewer punts (5) than the Volunteers.
To be continued. . . .