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Georgia Bulldogs 2011 Season Preview: The Tennessee Game

The excitement produced by the impending arrival of college football season is palpable, and some folks are so anxious, they’re about to wet themselves, so it’s high time we continue previewing the Georgia Bulldogs’ 2011 campaign. Up next is the Red and Black’s October 8 date with the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium.

Honestly, I don’t know what the heck to think about this game. The rivalry, after all, is awfully unpredictable; seven series meetings between comparably ranked Georgia and Tennessee squads ended in double-digit decisions between 1997 and 2006, and a pair of equally inept Bulldog and Volunteer outfits met in a blowout last autumn. Plenty of showdowns between these two teams that ought to have been close haven’t been, while such confrontations as those in 1992, 2001, and 2004, which shouldn’t have been nailbiters, went right down to the wire, with all three resulting in upsets. There’s just no figuring which way this game is going to go.

The forecaster’s job is made more difficult still by the fact that the game is being played in Knoxville. The arena with the checkerboard end zones has been the site of some of Mark Richt’s most impressive triumphs (e.g., the "hobnailed boot" game in 2001 and the epic rout in 2003) and some of his most demoralizing defeats (i.e., the beatdowns of 2007 and 2009). Georgia’s last two wins in Knoxville came in seasons in which the Bulldogs reached the SEC Championship Game; Georgia’s last two losses there came by a combined margin of 80-33.

It’s feast or famine for the Red and Black in Neyland Stadium, though, historically, the venue has not made much of a difference. Against Tennessee, Georgia is 9-10-1 in Athens and 8-11-1 in Knoxville; in the all-time series against the Vols, the ‘Dawgs have gone 6-9 between the hedges and 6-9-1 in Neyland Stadium. The Classic City Canines are as good against the Big Orange on the road as they are at home, but Georgia still trails in the all-time series standings, despite having won seven of the last eleven meetings. Each team has beaten the other thrice in the last six seasons.

Fortunately, this looks like it will be the first game of the 2011 campaign in which the Bulldogs’ ability to stuff the run may not be the most mission-critical aspect of the operation. Tyler Bray didn’t see the field in four of Tennessee’s first five games last season---his first encounter with Division I-A competition came between the hedges, in fact---but he came on strong to finish with 18 touchdown throws, over 1,800 passing yards, and a 55.8 per cent completion rate.

There is, however, a caveat to all this: Bray, like Mississippi State’s Chris Relf, benefited from a weak late-season schedule, and, even against some suspect secondaries, Bray saw his passer rating decline in each of the campaign’s final four outings. However, the questionable state of the Bulldogs’ defensive backfield prevents me from scoffing at the Vols’ November surge. If Justin Hunter, Da’Rick Rogers, and Tennessee’s third receiver (whoever he might be) are ready for prime time, the Big Orange aerial assault could be potent.

That doesn’t mean the Red and Black can ignore the Volunteers’ ground game altogether, though. Throughout the ‘90s, Tennessee routinely beat Georgia with a combination of throwing early to build a lead and running late to grind out the win. The Big Orange were able to do this because Phillip Fulmer’s teams usually boasted marquee tailbacks boosted from the Peach State.

True to form, Tennessee fields Toccoa’s Tauren Poole, who finished 2010 as the Volunteers’ leading scorer in a season in which he rushed for over 1,000 yards and averaged better than five yards per carry. Running behind an improved offensive line, Poole should have a 2011 campaign reminiscent of Tennessee tailbacks past, differing only in that his first name is "Tauren" instead of "Travis"; unless the Volunteers’ offensive staff lacks the acumen to run the dadgum ball---and the Volunteers’ offensive staff might, in fact, be exactly that lacking---Todd Grantham and his charges still will have to respect the Tennessee rushing attack.

I shouldn’t rip on the Big Orange’s offensive staff, though. As bad karma victims go, Tennessee is one of the few programs Georgia fans can look at and go, "Dang!" . . . though we enjoyed the Kiffinfreude (from which the hits just keep on coming), and we didn’t mind getting to say, "We told you so!" That said, this rivalry became a family affair with the hiring of Derek Dooley, which softened our hard feelings toward the Volunteers considerably.

Nevertheless, it’s tough to have too much sympathy for the Big Orange, in light of their relatively worry-free early-season slate. Georgia will be the fourth team to visit Neyland Stadium in the season’s first six Saturdays, and, after opening with Division I-AA Montana, the Vols get a September 24 open date and an October 1 tune-up against the Buffalo Bulls before welcoming the Bulldogs to Knoxville. To top it all off, Coach Dooley fils hired defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox away from the Boise St. Broncos. Gee, you think maybe there’ll be some phone calls between Idaho and Rocky Top the week before this game?

Speaking of Tennessee’s defense, it should be the Bizarro version of Georgia’s, as the Volunteers are strong in the secondary but questionable in the front seven. That’s just one more reason why this game presents one of the autumn’s toughest matchups to figure. Georgia and Tennessee both ought to be markedly better after struggling through 6-7 seasons last fall; each squad ought to be able to defend the other on the ground or through the air, but not by both avenues of advance; the Vols’ inexperience and lack of depth ought to give the ‘Dawgs the advantage, but the fact that the game is in Knoxville tilts the scales back in the opposite direction.

At the end of the day, this is an unpredictable rivalry even in the best of times, and these are not the best of times, though both teams should be on the upswing and gearing up for truly terrific 2012 seasons. This outing ought to represent a significant yardstick for the progress of both programs, but, given the way Georgia finished the 2007 season after a big loss to the Vols and the way the Bulldogs closed out the 2010 campaign after a huge win over the Big Orange, it very well may tell us nothing at all. The one thing we do know is that, however overblown much of the "hot seat" talk probably is, Mark Richt can ill afford another housing in Neyland Stadium. No matter how far the two programs may have fallen, we’re still Georgia and they’re still Tennessee, and it still matters a great deal whether the Bulldogs beat the Volunteers for the third time in four tries or lose to the Big Orange for the fifth time in eight seasons.

Also on Dawg Sports: Boise State game preview . . . South Carolina game preview . . . Coastal Carolina game preview . . . Ole Miss game preview . . . Mississippi State game preview . . . Maple Street Press annual!

Go ‘Dawgs!