Too Much Information: Tennessee (Part II)

As I promised I would in this morning's interview, I am (admittedly belatedly) providing you with my final breakdown of the Tennessee Volunteers, the initial installment of which appeared previously here at Dawg Sports.

My prediction of the final score will appear at the end of this posting, but you know how I operate: I don't give you a dash of data; I don't give you a pot full of knowledge; no, I give you . . . Too Much Information.

Enough detail to fill a Univac!

Odds and Ends

How good are Southeastern Conference defenses? Tennessee allows a respectable 16.6 points per game, yet the Volunteers rank sixth in the league in scoring defense. The Bulldogs stand atop the S.E.C. in that statistical category, surrendering just 6.8 points per contest. U.T. has given up almost four times as many touchdowns (11) as have the 'Dawgs (3).

Although Tennessee ranks second in the conference in scoring offense with 32.0 points per game and Georgia ranks sixth in the league in that same category, putting up just 25.6 points per contest, those numbers may be slightly misleading. In their last six S.E.C. games, the Volunteers have averaged 17.2 points per outing, whereas the 'Dawgs have scored 23.3 points per game in their last half-dozen regular-season conference contests.

In light of the Bulldogs' offensive woes, it is encouraging that a defensive struggle is probable. 10 of the S.E.C.'s top 50 tacklers play for one or the other of these two teams. The Vols field four of the conference's dozen most prolific stoppers and the Classic City Canines' Charles Johnson and Quentin Moses are two of the five league-leaders in tackles for loss.

Believe it or not, Georgia has a modicum of offensive balance: 40 of the Bulldogs' first downs have come on running plays and 39 have come by way of the forward pass.

 

A little more of this, if you please, gentlemen.

No team in the league is better at converting third downs than the Big Orange, as Tennessee picks up a fresh set of downs at a 59.7 per cent clip. No team in the league is worse at converting third downs than the Classic City Canines, who gain the requisite yardage just 29.8 per cent of the time. Fortunately, Georgia's third-down defense is the best in the conference, as opposing offenses only attain first-down yardage in third-down situations on 24.2 per cent of their attempts.

If the 'Dawgs are to have any chance of emerging victorious, they will need to catch a few breaks. Fortunately, the two teams' respective turnover margins hint that such a momentum-changer may be likely: Georgia stands at +2 in takeaway/giveaway, whereas Tennessee is -3 in that important category.

The Vol offense averages 6.9 yards per play . . . one of the top two such averages in the league. The Bulldog D allows just 3.9 yards per play . . . one of the top two such averages in the league. The U.T. defense, by contrast, surrenders a full yard more per snap (4.9).

The Red and Black have permitted the opposition to earn 74 first downs against them, the third-fewest in the S.E.C. The 31 first downs Georgia has given up on pass plays are the second-fewest in the conference, bettered only by the 30 allowed by L.S.U.

The absence of Brandon Coutu could increase the likelihood that the 'Dawgs will go for it on fourth down. Fortunately, the Classic City Canines have a 57.1 per cent conversion rate on fourth-down attempts and the Big Orange gives up the requisite yardage on fourth down exactly half the time.

I have included this picture of Kristin Davis as a sorbet, to cleanse the palate before the next course. (Photograph from T.V. Spielfilm.)

Intangibles

The burning question being asked throughout Bulldog Nation this week has been, "Can a Georgia team that struggled to beat Colorado and Ole Miss really compete with Tennessee?" There is reason for confidence that it can.

In the first place, it is well known---and often maddening---that the Red and Black have for many more years than Mark Richt has had an Athens mailing address demonstrated a tendency to play to the level of the competition, rising to the occasion against quality opponents yet falling flat against lesser foes.

It hardly would be unprecedented for the 'Dawgs to step up their level of play when stepping up their level of competition. Georgia opened the 1984 campaign with a seven-point win over a Southern Mississippi team that would go on to post a 4-7 record. In their very next outing, the Bulldogs won a classic battle with a Clemson squad ranked second in the nation and coming off of a bye week.

In 1991, the Red and Black turned in a lackluster performance against a Cal State-Fullerton squad that shortly thereafter dropped its football program . . . then, the following week, Georgia dealt a sixth-ranked Clemson squad what would be its only loss of the regular season, defeating the Tigers by a larger margin than that by which they had bested the Titans.

In 1998, the Classic City Canines played poorly in a 16-9 victory over Wyoming between the hedges, then turned right around and upset sixth-ranked L.S.U. in a night game in Baton Rouge. In other words, barely beating a bad team shortly before going out and getting the better of a good team is not an unfamiliar scenario for the Red and Black.

Furthermore, Coach Richt's squads have tended to perform better when facing familiar coaches and teams. The Bulldogs started slowly in the Sugar Bowl against a West Virginia squad they had never before faced, the Classic City Canines struggled initially in their first series meeting with Colorado, and the Red and Black encountered difficulty in Oxford when confronting a new Rebel coach after the longest layoff between Georgia-Mississippi games in four decades.

In 2003, the 'Dawgs found themselves in a fight with the Blazers in their first game against U.A.B.; when Watson Brown brought his squad back to Athens for a second encounter with a Mark Richt-coached team, Georgia won in a walk. A similar reversal of fortunes took place between the Bulldogs' season-opening scare against Clemson at home in 2002 and their thumping of the Tigers by the shores of Lake Hartwell to start the following fall.

What a difference a year makes.

Coach Richt's only loss to South Carolina came in his first season in the Classic City. He has won five straight games against the Gamecocks since, although the 'Dawgs struggled at home against a heavy underdog last year, when the Palmetto State Poultry were playing their second outing under a new head coach. A year later, the Bulldogs beat South Carolina soundly in Columbia.

Examples of this phenomenon abound. Coach Richt's Bulldogs were 0-2 against L.S.U. in 2003, the first year he faced the Bayou Bengals, but the Red and Black whipped the Fighting Tigers soundly in each of the next two seasons. By contrast, Coach Richt has struggled most mightily against the Gators, who had three different head coaches in his first five years at Georgia. His one win over Florida, not coincidentally, came in the third year of one of those coaches' regimes.

The other recurring opponent against which Coach Richt's teams have stumbled regularly is Auburn. In his first three years with the Red and Black, Coach Richt lost a close one to the Plainsmen, then won a close one against them, then beat them in a blowout. After that, the Tigers began changing coordinators on an annual basis, producing back-to-back Bulldog losses to the War Eagle.

Unsurprisingly, Coach Richt's greatest success has come against the rivals whose circumstances are the most stable. He is 5-0 against Georgia Tech, where Chan Gailey has been the very picture of consistency.

Coach Richt also is 4-1 against the Volunteers . . . and it is small wonder why. Phillip Fulmer is the dean of S.E.C. coaches and, despite last year's shakeup, his staff is quite constant. John Chavis is in his 19th year in Knoxville and his 12th as Tennessee's defensive coordinator. David Cutcliffe, while in his first year back with the Big Orange, logged 17 previous seasons at U.T. and Mark Richt faced (and beat) him twice while Coach Cutcliffe was at Ole Miss. Three other Volunteer assistants (defensive line coach Dan Brooks, defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell, and defensive backs coach Larry Slade) have at least seven and a half years' experience at Tennessee.

The 'Dawgs were caught off guard by the Buffaloes and by Ed Orgeron, each of whom rode in out of the West and managed to spring a few surprises. Mark Richt and Phillip Fulmer . . . the Bulldogs and the Volunteers . . . know each other too well for either to catch the other napping.

Since the Georgia-Tennessee game became a division rivalry in 1992, contests between the two have not been settled by trick plays, novel schemes, or innovative techniques. The clashes between these combatants have been settled the way Southeastern Conference outings have been decided since time immemorial . . . by running the ball and stopping the run, by blocking and tackling, by ball control and execution. There is no reason to believe that tomorrow night's game will be any different.

The Feel Good Stat of the Week

There's a reason why they call it the red zone. Tennessee may have more offensive firepower overall, but the two teams are quite similar when faced with a short field. Georgia has one more trek inside the opposition's 20 yard line than do the Vols (17-16) and the Big Orange boasts one more score deep in enemy territory (14-13). Each of these squads has scored 11 touchdowns in the red zone.

Defensively, though, the 'Dawgs have a clear advantage in the shadow of their own goalposts. Georgia has allowed its opponents to make 10 drives inside the 20 yard line, but only five of those red zone trips have resulted in points for the other team. In such situations, the Red and Black have taken over on downs as many times as they have allowed a touchdown . . . twice.

Tennessee, on the other hand, has permitted nine treks inside the Volunteer 20 . . . and the opposing team has come away with points all nine times, with seven of those scores being touchdowns and six of those being rushing T.D.s.

In other words, run the dang ball!

The Bottom Line

Over the course of the season so far, Georgia has produced the better record but Tennessee has been the better team. If each squad performs as it has over the course of the last two weeks, the Bulldogs will lose and may get embarrassed.

The Red and Black will have to play nearly perfect football in order to win this game. The 'Dawgs will need some momentum-changing plays---a long return, a Paul Oliver interception, a fourth-down conversion---to win this one, but, mostly, they will need to play fundamentally sound football in order to scratch out a win.

Fortunately, the Bulldogs are not without their advantages. The return of Joe Tereshinski makes it more likely that the Red and Black will avoid foolish mistakes and the loss of Brandon Coutu offers added incentive for the Bulldogs to play aggressively on offense; both should serve to shake the Classic City Canines out of their lethargy.

Defensively, all is well and the Junkyard 'Dawgs should be fired up by the electric atmosphere of a night game between the hedges. We will need the defense to come up with some big plays---not just stops or three-and-outs, but sacks and turnovers---but there is every reason to believe the defense is capable of such feats.

After all, the Georgia D has shut out two opponents already this season and, the last 10 times the Red and Black faced Tennessee in a season in which the Bulldogs held more than one opponent scoreless, the Classic City Canines were 7-3 versus the Vols.

You may remember one of those seasons:

(Photograph from The Tennessean.)

Believe.

My prediction: Georgia 16, Tennessee 15.

Go 'Dawgs!

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