Thanks to a dynamic downhill ground attack, the Bulldogs are averaging nearly twice as many rushing yards per game (304.0) as passing yards (167.3). That’s because they feature three superior runners in 6-foot-1, 232-pound junior Todd Gurley, 5-foot-11, 210-pound freshman Sony Michel and 5-foot-10, 228-pound freshman Nick Chubb. Gurley is averaging an eye-popping 9.8 yards per carry and 134.0 yards per game. Backups Michel and Chubb are averaging 10.3 and 9.5 per carry, respectively.
Georgia’s quarterback is fifth-year senior Hutson Mason, a career backup who poses a bigger threat when he’s handing off the ball than he does when he’s throwing it.
Bottom line: If Tennessee can find a way to contain Gurley, Michel and Chubb the 17-point underdog Vols have a chance to upset the 12th-ranked Bulldogs. That’s an imposing challenge, however. Georgia’s rugged rushers are difficult to knock off their feet.
“When you look at their stable of running backs the first thing that sticks out at you is the yards after contact,” Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. “It’s really incredible.”
Making matters worse is the fact the Vols are coming off a game against Oklahoma that saw them surrender a bunch of yards after contact. Secondary coach Willie Martinez said his defensive backs alone blew eight tackles versus the Sooners, up from one in the opener against Utah State.
“It’s our job to get the guy on the ground,” sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton said. “We obviously didn’t do a great job of wrapping up and running our feet.”
Defensive coordinator John Jancek also expressed displeasure with the tackling at Oklahoma. Jones, however, prefers to give the Sooners some credit, noting: “I think sometimes the quality of the opponent dictates that, as well.”
Still, Tennessee devoted a considerable portion of its open-date week to tackling.
“We work that every single day,” Jones said. “Every individual drill we work on tackling.”
Actually, the Vols work on “thud” tackling – striking a ball-carrier without wrapping up and taking him to the turf. This widespread practice is done to prevent injuries, most of which occur upon hitting the ground. Obviously, bringing Todd Gurley to the ground in a real game is a bit more challenging than putting a “thud” on 5-foot-8, 173-pound Vol backup Devrin Young in a practice drill.
Still, the Vols are allowing just 129.0 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry through three outings. So far, at least, the run defense has held up well.
“It has been a strength of ours,” Jones said. “But now we’ll really find out (how good it is), heading into the Georgia game, with their stable of backs and their style of play.”
One way to keep Georgia’s running attack from dominating the time of possession, the field position and the scoreboard is painfully obvious: Take the ball away. The Vols have not excelled in this area to date, however, recording just three fumble recoveries in the first three games.
“It’s getting population to the ball,” Jones said, citing what used to be called gang tackling. “That’s when good things happen. That’s when you can create turnovers.”
"We're gonna play our defense and we're going to swarm to the ball, ball disruptions and (Gurley)'s going to feel us." — Curt Maggitt
Arguably the best runner in college football, Gurley missed last year’s Tennessee game as the Vols pushed the Bulldogs to overtime before losing in Knoxville. The Big Orange won’t have the good fortune to miss him two years in a row but linebacker A.J. Johnson is glad.
“I always like playing the best,” the Vol senior said, “so I’m glad he’s back.”
With a potent offensive line and powerful backs, Georgia fields the kind of downhill running attack that could give undersized Vol defensive tackles Danny O’Brien (286 pounds) and Jordan Williams (284) all kinds of trouble. Johnson has confidence in his mates, however.
“We might lack a little size on the D-line but they’ve all got their strength,” he said. “They’ve trained hard for all of that, and they showed it in the Oklahoma game: They were holding up those big offensive linemen, enabling me to run around and make plays. We ain’t worried about no size or nothing like that.”
Because opposing defenses are focused on stopping Gurley, Georgia receivers often find themselves wide open. As a result, Mason has completed 71.2 percent of his passes for an average of 10 yards per completion.
“They try to use their run game to set up their play-action,” Sutton said. “If we’re stuffing the run game it will be hard for them to set up their play-action.”
Conversely, if the Vols aren't at least slowing Georgia’s run game … well, it will be all downhill from there.
Butch Jones video interview
Willie Martinez video interview
Curt Maggitt video interview