Vegas oddsmakers have weighed in on this SEC showdown and proclaimed Georgia a prohibitive 13-point favorite. Smart money says that line will jump to 14 points before the 3:34 p.m. kickoff. In the course of a week, Tennessee has become the incredible shrinking team while Georgia has grown in stature as a serious national title contender. That's just how convincing the Oct. 2 outings were in the minds of the public.
On paper this looks a lot like Mission Impossible for a Tennessee team that is led by two true freshmen quarterbacks with a defense that is backed by an unseasoned secondary. Fortunately it won't be played on paper but on the natural grass and between the hedges of jam packed Sanford Stadium.
No doubt, that's a daunting challenge, but at least it's a challenge the Vols have a fighting chance of meeting. In the minds of most fans and the betting public, the outcome of this contest is a foregone conclusion.
Admittedly, it's a steep climb for the Vols who must reverse some trends to overcome the odds. Here's five things that must happen for Tennessee to keep this one close and give itself a chance to spring a shocker.
(1) FAST START: Is Tennessee's defense really as bad as it looked against Auburn? That's difficult to answer because UT's stop troops are clearly a higher caliber unit in the second half of games than they are in the first. In the second half of their last three games, the Vols have allowed Florida, Louisiana Tech and Auburn to score a combined 66 points in the first half while limiting that same trio of opponents to 13 points in the second half. If depth was the problem, collapse would come in the second half. If it's a case of the opponent letting down with a lead in the second stanza, how do you explain Florida scoring 21 points in the first half and 7 in the second of a tightly contested cliffhanger? Or how would one explain Louisiana Tech scoring 14 points in the first half and only three in the second despite playing catch-up throughout the final 30 minutes of play? Auburn didn't deviate from its game plan at all after building a commanding 31-3 advantage at the half, neither did the first team sit with a large lead. It appeared UT simply played better defense. If the Vols can tap into that same type of inspiring play on defense from the opening whistle, they might just hang with the Dawgs through four quarters of action.
(2) FIELD POSITION: On a Tennessee offense that is clearly talented, punter Dustin Colquitt might just be its most potent weapon, considering the yardage he can account for and the position he can put the opponent in. To maximize his impact Tennessee needs get the ball out to its own 40 yard-line where a 45-yard punt puts the ball in play at the 15. Force Georgia go the long way to score and make the Bulldogs field and handle the ball deep in their own territory where the pressure is high and miscues are most damaging. Play calling should be designed to get the ball in such a position which translates to moving the sticks and taking small bites out of the Bulldogs D.
(3) KEEP IT CLOSE: This seems to be obvious but it hasn't been easily achieved as the Vols have trailed in the first half of every game this fall. Staying within easy striking distance or playing with the lead will allow UT to use its entire offensive package and to maintain the running game. Once the run is established, passing will become a comparative breeze as play action can slow the rush and give receivers time to get into their routes. Offensive balance is essential for Tennessee to be effective.
(4) TURN IT AROUND: After giving the ball away to Auburn six times last week, it's not necessary to detail the importance of taking care of the football. But it goes beyond that as Tennessee needs to win the turnover war by taking the ball away. It's not enough to wait for the opposition to make a mistake, throwing the ball up for grabs or laying it on the ground, Tennessee needs to force mistakes by swarming ball carriers, stripping the ball and timing hits on receivers. As much as anything, it's about an attitude that says the ball belongs to us and we're going to take it back.
(5) PRESSURE PASSER: This needs no explanation: UT needs to take the heat off its secondary by putting heat on David Greene. It may involve more zone blitzing or using more stunts up front or bringing pressure from the edge via linebackers or defensive backs. The important thing is to mix up the looks and not to give Green a good pre-snap read. Flooding the secondary with extra DBs and giving Greene time to throw won't work. He'll go to maximum protection and pick you apart or option to his running game which is coming into its own behind an experienced line and a pair of terrific true freshmen running backs.