Vols Reach Season Crossroads

Saturday's game against Georgia marks the midway point of the 2003 regular season for Tennessee, but more significantly it represents a crossroads for the program.

A win would make the Vols the odds-on favorite to win the SEC East Division and give them a chance to return to the conference title game it lost two years ago to LSU. A victory in Atlanta would have the Vols in national title contention, if they are able to knock off Miami in the Orange Bowl next month.

A loss would be Tennessee's second in a row and would all but eliminate the Vols from the SEC title chase. It would be a portent of difficult times for a program that was looking to rebound this season and it wouldn't likely be the last loss for the Vols in 2003. A defeat at home by Georgia could spin a campaign that started with bright promise into a downward spiral and toward another 8-4 regular season record.

Many schools would love to have a .666 winning percentage, but Tennessee isn't one of them. Under Phillip Fulmer the Vols have recaptured past glory and catapulted themselves into the upper echelon of college football's elite programs. A repeat of last year's win-loss total would mark a program in decline with 15 setbacks in the last four years.

Eventually such slippage begins to have its impact on the recruiting trail and the talent coffers start to dry up. A fourth straight loss to the Bulldogs makes it much more difficult for the Vols to attract top prospects from the Peach State which has always been fertile hunting ground for Fulmer and Company. It also makes Tennessee a tougher sale to prospects outside the south that are looking for a program that can compete for conference and national titles year in and year out. That makes for sober contemplation for a team that is in need of a standout recruiting season. Of course, that's in sharp contrast to the outlook if the Vols are able to come away with a victory.

So what are Tennessee's chances given the inability of its defense to stop the run the last two weeks, and the fact the victory over Florida in Gainesville isn't nearly as impressive in light of the Gators' ongoing struggles?

If we've learned anything from this season, it's that parity is a reality and you can't gauge what a team might do this week based on what it did the week before. No doubt, Tennessee has problems on the defensive interior, but some of those problems can be fixed be asking the tackles to do less instead of more. What John Chavis needs most is for his tackles to become bonding agents that essentially cement the gaps between the center and guards closing off the straight ahead lanes and forcing backs to take a lateral step outside before turning up field. The same is true on passes because if the tackles can occupy the three interior lineman it gives the linebackers a chance to bring pressure from the middle or to overload at strategic points along the line.

Getting Justin Harrell on the field will give UT a big body with the quickness to create havoc up front. He might also light a fire under some of the other tackles to compete for playing time. Any group that has been scrutinized as much as Tennessee's tackles have wants to prove themselves worthy and will come out ready to lay it on the line. Only time will help the lack of experience up front, but a game like the Vols had against Auburn can serve as an excellent tutorial and accelerate the learning curve. Tennessee isn't devoid of talent and eventually this group will show marked improvement.

Tennessee's linebackers and defensive ends have to remain disciplined in filling their run fits and maintaining good position to prevent the cutbacks which both Auburn and S.C. used to pop into the secondary off zone blocking on the stretch run. Better tackling is need across the board on defense and playing under control is the best way to assure defenders have a solid base from which to strike. It's critical the Vols establish a physical tone from the very beginning of this contest and continue to carry the fight to Georgia.

Offensively, the Vols need a better mix of the run and pass. If it's necessary to use the pass to set up the run instead of vice versa that is what Tennessee should do. Most importantly the Vols have to move the sticks and keep the defense from playing 12 more minutes than its opponent as was the case against Auburn. The Vols haven't been as effective using misdirection this season and this week would be a perfect point to start. Georgia's defense has swift pursuit and one of the best ways to slow it down is with misdirection.

The Vols don't have to play perfect football to win this game, but they do have to play better than they have to this point in the season. That means creating more turnovers than they commit and taking more chances. Tennessee has run the same offense for so long that there are few mysteries when they match up against Division opponents. Showing some different looks or varying their formations will cause enough doubt in the minds of Georgia's defenders that it should negate some of their aggressiveness.

The Vols also need at least a draw in the area of special teams. Dustin Colquitt is an amazing punter but Georgia has an edge with senior Billy Bennett over UT freshman kicker James Wilhoit. Coverage units have to stay sharp and the kick returners need to find a seam and hit it running full speed. There's simply no future in tiptoeing up to the wedge. Tennessee also has to reduce the number of crippling penalties that have characterized the team this season.

The crowd can play a big part in lifting the Vols to victory. If Tennessee fans show up early, get loud and stay late it could make the difference in this game. You never know when a simple false start can be the difference in a scoring drive and a three-and-out series.

This is the second of four revenge games on Tennessee's slate with Florida, Alabama and Miami representing the other losses. The Vols took care of business against Florida and can avenge another loss on Saturday. Last season Tennessee took Georgia to the wire despite playing the game in Athens with a true freshman quarterback calling the shots and without a healthy tailback on the roster. That's why I give the Vols a legitimate chance to win against Georgia.

Prediction: Tennessee 24, Georgia 20

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