Special teams looms large

There's a good chance that Saturday's Tennessee-Georgia game will be decided by a key play on special teams. There's an even better chance that the Bulldogs will make it.

That isn't based on a hunch. It's based on historical precedent. Since Mark Richt became Georgia's head coach in 2001, the Dawgs have killed Tennessee with special-teams superiority on a regular basis.

Consider:

2001: Damien Gary returns a punt 72 yards for a touchdown and Fred Gibson records a pair of 31-yard kickoff returns. Meanwhile, UT's Alex Walls misses a 34-yard field goal and makes a poor squib kick that sets up the Dawgs' game-winning TD drive. After the 26-24 loss, Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer grumbles, "Our punt coverage and kick coverage were atrocious."

2002: Reggie Brown blocks a Dustin Colquitt punt out of the end zone for a safety and a 2-0 Georgia lead. Jonathan Kilgo averages 46.4 yards on seven punts and Billy Bennett hits three of three field-goal tries. Meanwhile, UT's Philip Newman (subbing for the injured James Wilhoit) misses his only field-goal attempt as Georgia wins 18-13.

2003: No special-teams play has major impact in Georgia's 41-14 romp.

2004: Tennessee's James Wilhoit hits a career-best 51-yard field goal. Meanwhile, Georgia's Andy Bailey misses a 29-yarder as the Vols win 19-14.

2005: Leading just 13-7, Georgia downs a third-quarter punt at the UT 1-yard line. Three plays later, Thomas Flowers returns a Vol punt 54 yards for a TD that widens the gap to 20-7 en route to a 27-14 victory.

2006: Mikey Henderson returns a punt 86 yards for a TD and Thomas Brown returns a kickoff 99 yards for a TD. Still, a second-half meltdown by Georgia enables Tennessee to prevail 51-33.

In the six UT-UGA meetings since Richt arrived, Georgia's special teams have outplayed Tennessee's four times. The Vols' special teams managed one win (2004) and one draw (2003).

If this year's game hinges on special teams' play, you've got to like Georgia's chances. The Dawgs, as usual, are loaded with special-teams standouts. They have a terrific kicker (Brandon Coutu), a fine punter (Brian Mimbs) and superior return men (the afore-mentioned Brown and Henderson).

Coutu stands 43 of 54 on career field-goal tries, including 5 of 10 from 50 yards or more. He nailed a 58-yarder vs. Louisiana-Monroe in 2005 that stands as the SEC's longest since the kicking tee was banned following the 1988 season. Oh, yeah, Coutu is 84 of 84 on conversion kicks.

Mimbs ranks second among SEC punters in net average at 38.8.

Brown is averaging 23.2 yards per kickoff return.

Henderson, a preseason first-team Coaches' All-SEC pick, is averaging 14.8 yards per punt return, good for third place in the league thus far.

Fulmer concedes that Henderson is "a very, very dangerous punt returner," but believes the Vols have someone who may be able to neutralize him. That would be junior punter Britton Colquitt.

"We're very fortunate that we have a punter who can put it where he wants to most of the time," Fulmer said.

The key phrase there is "most of the time." Two of Colquitt's 15 punts this fall have been returned for touchdowns, enabling opponents to average a mind-boggling 28.8 yards per runback. Tennessee, by comparison, averages a mere 3.3 yards per punt return.

Now that he is fully recovered from a pulled quadriceps muscle, Colquitt is likely to handle the Vol kickoff duties this weekend, as well.

"Britton, I think, will be ready to kick off," Fulmer said. "That will certainly be a plus for us if that is the case. He'll get more height and distance than we've been getting."

Although Colquitt's gross average of 44.2 yards per punt is impressive, his net average is among the SEC's worst. And, although freshman place-kicker Daniel Lincoln is 8 for 8 on field goals, he has never attempted a clutch game-winner in the final minute. Meanwhile, Vol punt return specialist Jonathan Hefney has been a bust to date, averaging a paltry 2.8 yards per runback.

Fulmer concedes that Georgia's special teams tend to be outstanding, adding: "There's no question that the kicking game will play an important part in this game."

If so, history favors the Dawgs.


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