Critical Home Test vs. Vols for Georgia

ATHENS - Coming off a game that was little more than a glorified scrimmage, Georgia is getting serious again.

The No. 12 Bulldogs face Tennessee on Saturday, the first of seven straight Southeastern Conference games that will likely determine if this season lives up to expectations -- or turns out to be a huge disappointment.

"We've just got to win each game we play," linebacker Amarlo Herrera said with a sly grin. "That's it. Simple."

Even though they are already behind in the SEC East race after a loss at South Carolina, the Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1) know that a perfect mark over the next two months will give them a good shot at reaching the conference championship game in Atlanta.

"It still looks wide open to me," coach Mark Richt. "Now, if we don't win Saturday, it won't be very wide open for us. But I think everybody feels that way. I doubt anything will be settled until there are maybe one or two games to go."

Georgia was dominant in compiling 547 total yards, including 367 on the ground, in Saturday's 66-0 win over Troy. Leading rusher Todd Gurley was pulled after gaining 73 yards on six carries as the Bulldogs quickly built a big lead.

"Hopefully he'll have more energy next week because we're going to need it," Richt said.

Georgia begins its SEC run against Tennessee (2-1), which is still in rebuilding mode under second-year coach Butch Jones. The Vols opened the season by beating lightweights Utah State and Arkansas State, but their weaknesses were exposed two weeks ago in a 34-10 loss at fourth-ranked Oklahoma.

"Our young football team is going to find out what life is in the SEC with the grind that we are about to embark on," said Jones, whose Vols were off last week in preparation for their conference opener.

The Bulldogs nearly lost to the Vols a year ago, prevailing 34-31 in overtime. Georgia scored the tying touchdown with 5 seconds remaining in regulation, and a turnover in the extra period set up the winning field goal. But the cost of victory was high -- running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley both sustained season-ending injuries, and Georgia lost four of its last eight games.

The Volunteers enter this one with injuries to their receiving corps, which threatens to neutralize one potential matchup advantage for Jones' team.

Junior-college transfer Von Pearson and sophomore Josh Smith both are dealing with high ankle sprains. Jones already has indicated Pearson won't play while Smith's status remains uncertain.

If both Pearson and Smith are unavailable, Tennessee would be missing two of its top five receivers. Smith has 10 catches for 135 yards and a touchdown. Pearson has seven for 98 yards and a TD, though he hasn't played since getting hurt in the first half of the Vols' second game.

The loss of Pearson and the potential absence of Smith would put even more of a target on sophomore Marquez North, the Vols' top receiver with 14 catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. North had a touchdown catch last year against Georgia.

"I'm pretty sure I'm going to play more snaps," North said. "I'm prepared for it, and I'm conditioned."

Tennessee's injury situation also could create an expanded role for freshman Josh Malone, a heralded recruit who made an official visit to Georgia before signing with the Vols.

Pass defense has been one of Georgia's main concerns so far. South Carolina's Dylan Thompson went 21 of 30 for 271 yards with three touchdowns and one interception Sept. 13 in the Gamecocks' 38-35 victory over the Bulldogs. Georgia's starting secondary includes one true freshman (Dominick Sanders) and one redshirt freshman (Aaron Davis).

"There were a couple mistakes that could have been critical errors that we kind of got away with, so we're still not 100 percent on getting lined up right," Richt said. "But we're getting a lot better. The communication is getting a lot better, and we're still playing a lot of guys. So there's still a big learning curve back there, but I do feel like we're getting better."

Tennessee's aware of the challenges involved in playing underclassmen. The Vols have used 22 true freshmen this season, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision program. Jones likes what he's seen of Georgia's young secondary.

"They have it all, but when you look at them, they all kind of look the same," Jones said. "They have great length, and they have great range."

Dawg Post Top Stories