Head Coach: Butch Jones
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Last Year: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)
Last Year's Result: UGA 51-44 in a shootout
SBN Affiliate: Rocky Top Talk
The first weekend in October gives the Dawgs their first SEC road test, and it just so happens to be a game that new Vol Head Coach Butch Jones would love to win. Jones is no slouch in the coaching game. He may be embarking on his first year in Knoxville, but with a 50-27 record, he's the right man to rebuild this program.
However, Jones is facing a bit of an uphill battle. Tennessee is not loaded from top to bottom with talent. The Derek Dooley years did nothing for the cupboard, which is not bare, but isn't well stocked, either. The Vols must replace six starters on offense and three on defense, which will allow the Vols to stay in games and keep the score close, but if they're playing from behind, they're probably not winning. Add in the fact that there is no clear-cut QB, RB or top WR, and you've got a recipe for growing pains in the land of checkerboard end zones.
Why Tennessee Will Win:
We'll learn a lot about how well this team does on the road in the first game of the season. If the Dawgs survive at Clemson, then they'll handle their first SEC road test quite well. However, if you stumble at Clemson, there's a good chance you'll remember that in Knoxville. The Vol faithful need a win against a top SEC opponent this year. By the time they play the Dawgs, Tennessee should be 3-2 with wins over tomato cans and losses against Oregon and Florida. Oregon could be particularly brutal, as it's at Autzen Stadium, and the Ducks are loaded.
Sure, the Vols will play South Alabama in Neyland immediately before the Dawgs come to town, but if I'm Butch Jones, I need to rally my base and give them something on which to chew. I'm circling this Georgia game and I'm making that the day where all my eggs meet the basket. Sure, the Vols could actually beat what I think is a less-than-stellar Gator team, but that's at Florida and nobody expects them to win that game. You have to circle Georgia and make that your statement game of the year.
So could Tennessee win on just being in Knoxville? No, but it'd play a huge role. The Dawgs didn't do much to keep Tennessee out of the end zone last year, but that was an entirely different Vol team. That team had Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, and the infamous Tyler Bray. That Georgia team also had no idea how to stop the run.
That brings me to my next point. In 2013, the running backs, Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, who nearly racked up 200 yards rushing against the Dawgs last year, will be back. They'll be running behind a pretty good offensive line that only lost one starter from the year before, so there's something on which to keep an eye.
It'll be interesting to see who takes snaps under center for the Vols, as they haven't decided on a clear cut starter as of yet. Their options are a junior, redshirt freshman, and two true freshmen. The junior, Justin Worley, makes the most sense, but his immobility in a Butch Jones offense may make Jones trot a freshman out there with some speed in his legs.
Overall, if Tennessee's going to pull out a victory, they have to hope they can score 20+ points and use their ground game to keep Georgia's offense off the field.
Why the Dawgs Will Win:
On paper, there's no doubt Georgia is the better team. UGA and UT couldn't be more opposite offensively, as the Dawgs have the depth, o-line, running backs, wide receivers, and QB that Tennessee would die for at this moment. Georgia can put up points quickly, and then grind out the game in a hostile environment to drain the clock and the fan base.
The funny thing is that the Vol defense will present a challenge. Their secondary is a year older, and led by Bryon Moore, a safety who had five interceptions last year. They've also got a great linebacker corps that's anchored by A.J. Johnson, who was their leading tackler in 2012, and then you have to go up against a defensive line that has Daniel McCullers in the middle at nearly 350 lbs. I said in 2012 that the Vols' defense would be better and I think I was just off a year. These guys will be very good, but not quite great.
Where Tennessee is going to run into problems is their offense. I detailed some of their woes above, but it can't be understated how much catching up they'll have to do, all season long. The offensive line is really their only strength, and the big uglies don't score. Either way, the Vols are playing a new QB and new WR corps, and their RBs weren't incredibly impressive last year, even if they looked that way in Athens.
When you look at Georgia's great offense, they should win the battle against Tennessee's good defense. Gurley and Marshall should be dangerous enough on the ground to keep UT's secondary honest. I do think UT will bring a lot of blitzes (remember, this unit is led by one John Jancek, who I'm sure would love a little payback), but with decent blocking, Murray will eat them alive. One thing Tennessee's defense doesn't have is speed, so if we keep going deep on them, we'll be well on our way to an easy victory.
What I Think Will Happen:
Truthfully, this game scares me to death. It's easy to overlook Tennessee because we all know that it's going to take a couple of years for Butch Jones to even get this team back to nine wins. Let's be honest and say that if Tennessee makes a bowl, they should be thrilled about it, and consider it quite the rebuilding year. However, a win over UGA will do a lot more for growing this program than a game against a tomato can in late December. That's why I'm worried.
There's really only one battle to watch here and that's the Dawgs vs. Neyland Stadium. If the game is at night, and Tennessee looked halfway competent to this point, then it will be another classic SEC atmosphere. If the Dawgs let the Vols hang around, it'll be a four quarter game. If Georgia is up by 14 at halftime, they'll win by about 20. Hope is the biggest enemy of the Dawgs here and I just think we're too talented to let Tennessee get going. There are still growing pains in Knoxville, but mark my words, we'll be glad we get them in Athens in 2014.
Dawgs 35 -- Vols 13
What are your thoughts? Also, keep checking back as we'll continue the season preview with Georgia getting Missouri at home.