Tennessee’s match-up with the Georgia Bulldogs this Saturday is an extremely important game for the fate of the SEC East. The Vols are the heavy favorites to win the division after defeating the Florida Gators last Saturday, but the Bulldogs could stay right in the thick of things with a win over Tennessee.
Both team’s offensive play-calling and defensive schemes are being analyzed and evaluated. But one area that isn’t getting much attention is special teams. And according to the numbers, the Vols could dominate the Bulldogs in this area of the game.
Evan Berry, Tennessee’s potent kick returner, hasn’t had many chances to return kicks this year after a record-setting performance last year. Teams have wisely been kicking away from Berry or kicking the ball through the end zone rather than giving him a chance to make a play. On the season, Berry only has three kick returns, but he’s averaging 34.3 yards per return on those three opportunities.
If Georgia’s season thus far is any indication, Berry should have a chance to increase those numbers on Saturday.
The Bulldogs have kicked the ball off 20 times this season so far. Only six of those kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, however, giving Georgia a 30 percent touchback rate on kickoffs. That’s the third-worst percentage in the SEC. For comparison, the Vols have the fifth-highest percentage with 58.3 percent of their kickoffs going for touchbacks this season.
Not only is Georgia failing to kick the ball deep enough to prevent returns, but they aren’t stopping returners from ripping off big gains either.
Georgia ranks 11th in the SEC in opponent kick return average with opposing kick returners gaining an average of 22.6 yards a return. In fact, the Bulldogs are the only SEC team to give up a kick return touchdown so far this season. The Bulldogs are also giving up the third-most kick return yards per game, allowing teams to gain 79.3 yards a game on kick returns.
One of Tennessee’s best special team weapons is punter Trevor Daniel. On the season, Daniel is averaging 43.6 yards per punt and has had 11 of his 23 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. All five of his punts against Florida last weekend pinned the Gators inside the 20. And 13 of Daniel’s 23 punts have been fair caught.
Winning the field position battle is an underestimated part of winning a game. Daniel and the Vols have proven that time and again. In fact, Georgia can attest to that last year when Daniel pinned them back several times with field-flipping punts.
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, haven’t been as effective with punting this season.
Georgia may have one of the better punt coverage units thus far, holding opponents to a mere 2.9 yard per punt return average. But part of that is because Georgia’s punts aren’t going very far. They rank 12th in the SEC with an average of 39.6 yards per punt.
There’s also the impact both team’s field goal kickers could have. And the Vols have a decisive advantage there as well.
Georgia’s field goal kicking has been the worst in the SEC this season, and it’s not even close. Both of the Bulldogs’ kickers have struggled to connect on anything beyond an intermediate kick. Georgia has made just three of their eight field goal kicks this year, and their long is just 29 yards. Only one other school in the country with five or more field goal attempts has a worse percentage, and that’s Central Michigan. Tennessee’s Aaron Medley has hit four of six field goals with a long of 39 yards.
Both teams have been effective in their return games, as the Bulldogs rank sixth in the SEC in punt return average and eighth in kick return average while the Vols rank ninth in punt return average and second in kick return average. But when it comes to overall effectiveness of their special teams, Georgia can’t hold a candle to the Vols.
If there’s one area Tennessee has a decided edge against the Bulldogs this Saturday, it’s in the special teams game. Especially if Evan Berry gets a chance to run back a couple kickoffs.