Vols Must Stop Gurley... If Possible

ATHENS - Tennessee, for the second trip in a row to Sanford Stadium, returned unsold tickets back to Georgia.

That’s the sort of half decade its been for the Vols - faith in the Big Orange has slipped. Phillip Fulmer, Lane Kiffin, Derrick Dooley and now Butch Jones - the Vols have had more head coaches than trips to bowl games of late. Going 28-34 certainly couldn’t have been what former Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton was thinking when he let Fulmer go after the 2008 season.

Hamilton was an idiot who seemed hell bent on wrecking Tennessee in every possible way. If that was his objective he did just that. Still, Jones has at least rallied fans of the Big Orange, and thanks to recruiting, many can see the light at the end of the tunnel. The question is just how far away that light is.

This is where we are at - the Vols (2-1, 0-0) come to Athens as 17-point underdogs, but ahead of No. 12 Georgia (2-1, 0-1) in the standings. The game is critical for both teams - that goes without saying. But its also obvious that this game has lost its traditional luster, which is likely the reason ESPN is broadcasting the game at noon and not at 7 night.

This used to be a standard CBS game of the week pickup, and it was easy to see why.

From 2001-2007, Georgia and Tennessee won the SEC East every season except 2006. From 1992 until 2008 at least one of these two teams was ranked when the foes met on the field. But Fulmer’s departure has sent the Vols into a tailspin. Georgia wasn’t doing its part, either. 2009 and 2010 featured two blowouts in a row for the home team over unranked and pitiful teams. The teams met once more in 2011 as unranked participants, but Georgia wound up winning the SEC East that year. That Georgia hasn’t faced a ranked Tennessee team since 2006 is stunning. That the Vols haven’t beaten a ranked team on the road since that night is even harder to believe.

We can’t go back in a time warp - Peyton Manning isn’t walking through that door. But our inability to figure out the time space continuum doesn’t dampen the significance of Saturday’s game. Georgia’s already figured out how to lose a division game, and Tennessee shows up in Athens with a four-game losing streak in the series and games with Florida, at Ole Miss, Alabama and at South Carolina in their next five contests. To say that this is a must-win game for both teams is putting it mildly.

Frankly, its probably a season ender for someone.

But that something is a must-win doesn’t guarantee just that. The Bulldogs will have to figure out how to keep everyone healthy - which was a major factor in Tennessee’s rally to force overtime last season, while the Vols will have to figure out how to stop a Georgia offense that is scoring 49 points a game.

Todd Gurley and company are averaging over 300 yards rushing a game. Still, no matter the catalyst for the offense, Georgia has been deadly at home since the start of the 2011 season. The Bulldogs are averaging 45 points a game playing at home and have only lost twice - to No. 12 South Carolina in 2011 and to No. 25 Missouri in 2013. In that time Georgia has beaten these programs by double digits in Athens: Mississippi State, South Carolina, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Kentucky and Clemson.

Mike Bobo - what an idiot. You can’t average 46 points a game at home over a four-year span, Bobo?

No one in the media is giving the Vols much of a chance to win - understandably. The last time a Mark Richt-led Georgia team lost to a 17-point underdog was never (36-0 straight up vs. teams that are 17-point or more underdogs). Still, Tennessee’s path to victory seems pretty simple (to type… not to do on the field): stop Georgia’s running game, and make Hutson Mason beat you.

That’s the Hutson Mason who is getting very little credit these days - perhaps understandably so. Mason is only averaging 140 yards a game passing, but his completion percentage - 71% - is good enough for No. 7 in the country. Tennessee’s Justin Worley? He’s completing 58% of his passes… good for No. 81 in the country.

So if it is about stopping Gurley and company, which really is the plan for anyone against Georgia, how good are the Vols at stopping the run? Not bad actually. Tennessee is allowing 129 yards a game on the ground - about 14 yards a game more than Clemson is allowing. For those keeping score at home, Georgia ran for 328 on Clemson in Athens four weeks ago.

Tennessee is going to have to outplay Georgia in every aspect to win the game. It is that simple.

Special teams, which seemed to be a weakness for the Bulldogs last season, is coming on now. Georgia’s pass defense seems ripe for Justin Worley to pick on, but Georgia is actually improved in that department from a year ago already.

The other, and more pressing problem for the Vols in the pass game is two fold: 1. Receivers Josh Smith (10 catches, 135 yards, 1 TD) and Von Pearson (7 catches, 98 yards, 1 TD) won’t travel to Athens for the game - meaning Tennessee will be down two productive receivers. 2. The new Tennessee offensive line is allowing three sacks a game, and Georgia feels like it can rush the passer.

One has to keep in mind that Marquez North (14 catches, 173 yards, 2 TD) and Pig Howard (13 catches, 89 yards) will still be in the lineup for the Vols, so the threat of the pass is still very much alive for Tennessee. But the depth of the Vols WR group is certainly depleted. Josh Malone (5 catches, 63 yards), who picked the Vols over Georgia and others, will have to step up to fill in for the hurt WRs.

Meanwhile, Georgia is still without receivers Justin Scott-Wesley, Malcolm Mitchell and Jonathan Rumph for another week. Coach Mark Richt said he expects all three to be ready to play against Vanderbilt next week. None of those three have played in any of Georgia’s three games this season.

Nonetheless, this game will come down to Tennessee’s ability to keep up with Georgia on the scoreboard. The Bulldogs are scoring three touchdowns more per game than the Vols. The Vols are last in the SEC in yards per play (4.6). Part of the problem, too, is that Tennessee is struggling running the ball. The Vols are ranked 13th of 14 teams in the SEC while managing only 130 yards on the ground per game. Tennessee is averaging 240 yards a game passing the ball, but it is no wonder the Vols are allowing three sacks a game - it seems they are quite one demential on offense.

That UT can’t run well (and by the way, Georgia is 4th in the SEC vs. the run - allowing only 104 per game on the ground) is likely leading to obvious passing situations, which leads to pass rushing situations, which isn’t helped by an new offensive line that’s starting two freshmen on the right side. That’s probably the reason the Vols are struggling protecting Worley. Oklahoma pressured or sacked Worley 13 times - or about once every three times he dropped back to pass. Worley, understandably, wound up completing less than half of his passes, and the Vols lost by 24 points on the road.

The Vols’ offensive troubles not withstanding; Tennessee’s defense, and powerful A.J. Johnson, may be able to slow Georgia for a time - Clemson did. But Clemson scored, and that’s what the Vols are going to have to do to beat the Dawgs. Tennessee is ranked 13th in the SEC and 80th in the country in scoring offense. That, on Saturday, is the Vols’ problem.

Simply put: Without turnovers, a great special teams performance (Tennessee blocked a kick for a touchdown in 2013 and punted for a 51-yard average and with two of the punts winding up inside the 20) and shutting down Georgia’s run game (Georgia has out-gained the Vols by an average of 197 to 94 in the last four games) the Vols will not win.

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