Preview: Tennessee at No. 12 Georgia

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    A.J. JohnsonTennessee at No. 12 Georgia

    Saturday, noon ET

    Sanford Stadium (92,746) • Athens, Ga.

    TV: ESPN

    Series Record: Tennessee leads 21-20-2

     Setting the table

    Tennessee finally starts SEC play after three non-conference games and a bye week. The Vols won’t get to ease into the conference slate with the first test coming against a talented Georgia team on the road – a team the Vols barely lost to in overtime in 2013. But coaches have been quick to remind that 2014 is a new year and last year’s result has very little bearing on this year. Both teams have undergone many changes since that game. Georgia, who was without star running back Todd Gurley last year due to an ankle injury, has arguably the best backfield in the nation, but the Bulldogs are still breaking in new quarterback Hutson Mason after losing four-year starter Aaron Murray. The Vols, meanwhile, are still looking for consistency from an offensive line that has five new starters this season. There are several unknowns leading into Saturday, though it’s certain that it will be a huge test for the Vols.

     Who has the edge?

    When Tennessee throws…

    The Vols could have a chance at huge success in the passing game if Justin Worley has time to sit back in the pocket and look for the likes of Marquez North, Pig Howard, Josh Malone and others against a rebuilt Georgia secondary that has been porous at times this season. The problem will be finding him that time to do just that. The Vols were overrun by Oklahoma’s defensive front to the tune of five sacks officially, though penalties negated a couple others. Georgia doesn’t have quite the talent up front as OU, but defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is known for bringing some exotic blitzes. Linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins can cause some matchup issues for the Vols’ inexperienced offensive line. The Vols should move the ball through the air, but will negative plays such as sacks or interceptions forced by rushed passes neutralize those gains?  Edge: Even

    When Tennessee runs…

    Jalen Hurd is gaining confidence after a couple of big runs in the second half against Oklahoma. But still, the run game is far from a strength for the Vols at this point in the season and it very well may not be all season. That’s the reality with this offensive line. Tennessee is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry and the Bulldogs are holding opponents to to 2.75 yards per carry. That’s a bad recipe for success on the ground for Tennessee. The Vols don’t need to be dominant on the ground, though getting 4.0+ yards per carry would go a long way towards helping them get in more manageable down-and-distance situations. That’ll be easier said than done. Edge: Georgia

    When Georgia passes…

    The Vols should be willing to put the game in UGA quarterback Huston Mason’s hands. It’s not that he’s incompetent, only that the Vols have a better chance in that scenario than letting Todd Gurley and Co. run wild. Mason doesn’t have a huge arm, nor the upside of the Aaron Murrays and Matthew Staffords of the Georgia world. But he does make good decisions – that gets overlooked. He hasn’t thrown an interception all season and completes over 71% of his passes. That being said, he doesn’t push the ball down the field particularly well. He’s only averaging 139.7 yards per game through the air and hasn’t completed a pass longer than 36 yards on the season. Chris Conley and Michael Bennett are solid SEC receivers, but they shouldn’t scare Tennessee too much. Look for the Vols to take their chances with a fair amount of man-to-man defense and see if Mason can make them pay for overloading the box. Edge: Even

    Jalen-Reeves MaybinWhen Georgia runs…

    The Bulldogs will have the edge on the ground and that’s no insult to Tennessee’s run defense, which has actually been fairly stout this season. That’s just reality: Georgia has one of the strongest groups of runners in the nation. It obviously starts with slowing Todd Gurley down, but the defense can’t let up if Nick Chubb or Sony Michel comes in. They can both make huge plays as well. Throw in bruising fullback Quayvon Hicks and the versatile Isaiah McKenzie, who is a threat to take a reverse or a jet sweep to the house on any play, and the Bulldogs can attack from many different angles in the run game. Tennessee will need to sell out to limit the damage on the ground. That might mean running the true 4-3 defense and walking a safety up to make it look like more of a 4-4. Running is what Georgia does best and the Bulldogs will run away with this game if Tennessee doesn’t have an answer. Edge: Georgia

    Special teams…

    The Bulldogs have the statistical edge in most kicking and returning categories. The duo of Gurley (kickoff returner) and McKenzie (punt returner) is more explosive than UT’s equivalents. UGA kicker Marshall Morgan has been shakier than normal this season, but he clearly has the experience edge over Aaron Medley. So on paper, it looks like a huge edge for the Bulldogs. One big play could flip that, however. Georgia found that out last year when a blocked punt and touchdown return almost cost them the game in Knoxville. Edge: Georgia

     What Georgia is thinking…

    We respect Tennessee. They always seem to play us tough, but at the end of the day, we’re playing at home, we’re better and despite all the talk about how close UT plays us, we’re the ones with four straight wins in the series. They can stack the box all they want. Gurley can still get four or five yards per carry just by dragging defenders. Then we’ll hit a few over the top off off of play-action. We’ll stay away from Cam Sutton as much as possible and then we can expose some of the other matchups. We’ll give up a few big plays in the passing game, though our pressure, combined with the fact that they’re missing a couple key receivers, will limit those. This is a must-win for us after falling to 0-1 in SEC play. There’s no way we’ll take UT lightly and we’ll get out of this one with a pretty convincing win.

     What Tennessee is thinking…

    We took a few lumps at Oklahoma, but SEC games like this are why we scheduled that OU game. Now we know we can compete with anybody if we can just limit our mistakes and play our game. The offensive line is going to make a big jump after the bye week. It was humbled after that performance and we have a better idea of what we need to do to help those guys out as well. Jalen Hurd is just getting started and we’re going to work Derrell Scott – a guy Georgia hasn’t seen on film – into the mix as well. Our active front will contain that running game and we’ll make Mason beat us. We just don’t think he can. Winning a big road game is the next step in the development of our program and this is it. We’ll finish off what we barely missed on last year.

     What RTI is thinking…

    “If” is the key word for Tennessee. The Vols have a shot in this one, IF they do a lot of things right. They have to limit the UGA run game, win one-on-one matchups in the secondary, improve protection on offense, find some room in the running game themselves, hit some deep balls, avoid catastrophes on special teams, limit penalties and win the turnover battle. Again IF they do most or all of those things, an upset is certainly within reach. But that’s a lot to ask of a young team that’s still developing and learning to win on the road. The final score will be proportionate to how many of those things they do well. If they get beat in most of them, the Vols will get blown out. If they do some of them, they probably cover but lose. And if they can take care of a lot of them, they’ll have a chance.