Daniel’s Pick: I published a blueprint for how Tennessee can have a shot in this game yesterday. I truly think Georgia has weaknesses the Vols can expose – particularly in the Bulldogs’ secondary. Marquez North, Pig Howard and maybe even Josh Malone are just better football players than who they will be matched up against, in my opinion. So in theory, the Vols should have a lot of success through the air, but the lack of protection makes me skeptical. Did Tennessee’s inexperienced line make a huge jump since Oklahoma? We’ll find out. I don’t think UGA’s front seven is as disruptive overall, but I’m a big Jeremy Pruitt admirer and I think he’ll put his guys in position to wreak some havoc, especially if the Vols are facing tough down-and-distance situations. That means the run game must be existent, the Vols have to continue to a do a great job not taking penalties, they’ll have to show balance and variety on offense and do everything they can to help the offensive line.
That brings us to the other side of the ball, where there’s an even bigger challenge. How do you stop that group of Georgia backs? You really can’t. The Vols just can’t get gashed and they’ll have to throw extra bodies in the box to minimize the damage. That could leave the secondary exposed at times, but that’s the chance UT should take against Hutson Mason and a short-handed group of UGA receivers. They might make the Vols pay, but they’ll certainly pay if they don’t commit to stacking the box, so you have to take a chance somewhere against this team. If they do all those things well, it could get interesting in Athens. The Vols certainly will play with some degree of confidence based on how they competed at OU and their recent history with Georgia as well. I just think it’s asking too much of this young team to pull this one off, however. I think Georgia is the best team in the East despite their recent road hiccup at South Carolina and the Bulldogs really need this win to make sure they don’t get too far behind in the race to Atlanta. The Bulldogs will get it in what will be another respectable effort from Tennessee that will come up short. Pick: Georgia 35-21
MVP: Georgia RB Todd Gurley
We can talk all week about schemes that will limit Todd Gurley, but come Saturday at noon, he’s still, arguably, the best overall player in college football and there’s nothing that will completely shut him down. Even the perfect game plan can be ruined by one or two missed assignments or some sloppy technique. He will make Tennessee pay if that happens and I’m guessing it will happens at least a couple times. He had 130 yards as a true freshman against Tennessee. And while, thankfully for UT, Sal Sunseri isn’t calling the shots on defense like he was that game, I still see Gurley getting at least 100 yards and at least one touchdown. He’ll be the ultimate test for this improving defense.
Houston’s Pick: This is an incredibly tough game for me to wrap my head around. Obviously, Georgia is bringing one of the best rushing attacks in the country to the table with Todd Gurley and Sony Michel spearheading a backfield that may be as talented as any group in the country – if not more so. Tennessee’s defensive line has been sneaky-good against the run this year and held, in my opinion, a very strong Oklahoma ground game to only 146 yards on 34 attempts (Oklahoma rushed for 301 yards on 46 attempts last week against West Virginia). So what must the Vols do this weekend?
The bottom line for Tennessee this week is to force Hutson Mason to beat them. By putting the Bulldogs in obvious passing situations the Vols can put the pressure on Mason to do something he hasn’t really been able to do this year – be ‘the guy.’ Through three games, Mason has yet to pass for more than 200 yards in any of them. Mason is smart with the football, but does not possess nearly the arm talent that Arron Murray displayed last year in Neyland Stadium. That’s the difference this year. If the Vols can limit Gurley, Michel, Chubb…etc. then they should be able to force Mason into some bad decisions and hopefully a turnover or two if things go the right way. I think Tennessee can do enough on defense to leave this game within reach heading into the fourth quarter.
Offensively, Tennessee has to exploit the middle of the field in the passing game. Georgia’s secondary is good – not great – and should leave some openings for Justin Worley to find IF the offensive line can give him time in the pocket. The line has had two weeks of film study and practice to gel and game plan for this trip to Athens and I think they come out much improved compared to their abysmal outing in Norman. Pig Howard moving to the slot so that Josh Malone can play on the outside may prove to be one of the best things to happen to this team all year. Pig had a huge game against Georgia a year ago, and sliding back to his rightful position in the slot should help him in this matchup.
Maybe I’m crazy, but I think Tennessee can do enough against the run to force Mason to win this one for the dogs. Unfortunately, I also think that Mason does just enough in this one to sneak out of Sanford Stadium with the W. Call this an extremely reluctant decision. Pick: Georgia (Barely) 27-24
MVP: Georgia RB Todd Gurley
I don’t think it will be a banner day for him, but I think that Todd Gurley does the grunt work for Georgia in this one. I could see him winding up with around 100 yards and a touchdown or two before everything is said and done. Nothing outstanding, but enough to deserve some credit. I truly think that Tennessee will give Georgia’s run game some trouble, but a running back as good as Gurley will make some plays in a game like this. I think Gurley fights for some tough yards, maybe breaks for a critical first down late in the game and finds the end zone at least once.
Reed’s Pick: Justin Worley will need to play the game of his life to pick up a victory in Athens this weekend. Georgia’s secondary is mediocre at best and Worley played his best game of the season last year against the Bulldogs. The Vols just aren’t a good rushing team right now – they’re averaging 3.33 yards per carry this year which is good for last in the SEC. Georgia’s run defense is among the league leaders. They give up a touch over 100 yards on the ground per game and are holding opponents to 2.75 yards per carry. Worley needs to connect on a few deep balls in order to keep the offense moving in this one – they’re unofficially 0-15 this season on passes more than 25 yards in the air. But those passes will be there for the taking. The middle of the field will be susceptible to a few big plays for Ethan Wolf and Pig Howard and North and Malone will have mismatches on the outside. Look for the Vol offensive line to play better this week. Georgia’s front-seven is good, but not near as explosive as the one the Vols faced in Norman. How much they’re able to improve could be the difference between a close loss and a close win.
Defensively, Tennessee is in for a massive test. Three Georgia tailbacks are averaging 9.5 yards per carry or better and the Bulldog rushing attack ranks second in the nation in yards per carry. Tennessee’s defensive front slowed down Oklahoma’s ground game two weeks ago, so don’t expect the Vols to get run over. If UT can hold Georgia to around 200 yards rushing (they average 304 yards rushing per game), this will be a winnable game. The Vols have to slow the Bulldog rushing attack enough to force Georgia into passing situations on third down – an area the Vol defense has excelled this year. Hutson Mason has been underwhelming so far this season. He’ll be working without several of his top receivers this game and Cam Sutton should be able to shut down one side of the field. Mason hasn’t shown the ability to carry his time like his predecessor – the Vols have to dare him to throw.
Ultimately, this should be way closer than the line indicates and would be a toss up for me if this game was played in Neyland. The Vols haven’t downed a ranked foe on the road since 2006. They’ve been perilously close numerous times since then, including their last trip to Athens, but haven’t been able to get over the hump. A few special teams plays are likely to be the difference in this one. If the Vols win special teams and take care of the football – they win the game…but I haven’t seen anything to suggest they’re ready to do that just yet. Perhaps by November when they travel to South Carolina… Pick: Georgia 31-24
MVP: Georgia’s Special Teams
Tennessee’s offense should be able to put up points on Georgia and UT’s defense will slow down the rushing attack. But Georgia has a decided edge at special teams. Tennessee’s kick coverage hasn’t been great this year. How many times have we seen the Vols get burned in a big game by a kick or punt return? That can’t happen this weekend, but if it does it’ll be the difference in the game. Darr has struggled punting the ball throughout practice this week and a blocked punt isn’t out of the realm of possibility either. Whether it’s Gurley returning a kick, Georgia blocking a punt, or McKenzie taking a punt to the house, my hunch is a big play on special teams will turn the tide in this one.