Tennessee's vulnerability is foreign

ATHENS - The notion that No. 13 Tennessee is vulnerable heading into Saturday's game against Georgia isn't so unthinkable. That they are vulnerable like this, though, is hard to comprehend.

The Volunteers (4-1, 2-1 SEC) are coming off a narrow win over South Carolina and a loss against Auburn. In both games, they haven't been able to either run the ball or stop the run, two staples of the Phil Fulmer era in Knoxville.

Tennessee's stable of running backs - which includes Cedric Houston, Jabari Davis and freshman Gerald Riggs Jr. - carried the ball only nine times against Auburn, and the Volunteers totaled only 4 rushing yards as a team. In the last three games, Tennessee has rushed the ball 102 times for 260 yards, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry.

Fulmer defended those numbers by saying his offense merely has been taking what defenses give it, and he professed optimism the running game will be there when Tennessee needs it.

"I think we can still run the football," he said. "We're certainly going to need to."

The Volunteers host No. 8 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) at 7:45 p.m. Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.

Georgia has been stifling against the run this year. The Bulldogs were 11th in the country in rush defense (79.5 yards per game) heading into the Alabama game and allowed the Crimson Tide just 6 rushing yards in the first half.

Fulmer said he expects his highly regarded offensive line to take much of the heat for those numbers.

"Right now they should be ready for a lot of criticism because anytime you don't run the ball very well, that's where everybody is going to look," the former offensive line coach said. "I think we can be much more consistent than we have been on the offensive line, but I also think we can be more consistent at a lot of positions."

Tennessee's offense gave up five sacks against the Tigers, which isn't a good sign with Georgia's Thomas Davis coming off a two-sack game against Alabama.

"Yes, I would be very concerned about Georgia's pass rush," Fulmer said.

If Tennessee can't run the ball effectively against the Bulldogs, there will be little reason for Bulldogs' defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to hold Davis back.

Houston is the Vols' leading rusher with 442 yards on 86 carries. Davis is next at 239 yards on 48 carries. Riggs, who has only four carries this year, didn't play against Auburn because he stil has work to do on pass protection but is still part of the plan, Fulmer said.

The frustration of Tennessee's backs can only heighten as they watch opposing backs run wild. Auburn rushed for 264 yards last week and South Carolina, which gained 111 on the ground against Georgia, rolled up 217 against the Volunteers.

The reasons for the recently porous run defense are many, Fulmer said.

"We're out of alignment too many times, missed too many tackles and got physically whipped too much," he said. "We can't win consistently giving up that many rushing yards."

Fulmer may not have to worry this week because Georgia doesn't appear capable of taking advantage of his team's struggles against the run. The Bulldogs are averaging 141 yards per game on the ground but managed only 2.2 yards per carry against an Alabama team that was also struggling against the run.

"We're not strong enough and physical enough to line up and hammer the ball," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "I'd be pleasantly surprised if we did."

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