In order to truly believe Tennessee will beat Georgia Saturday you'd have to assume three things will happen that haven't happened all season i.e., the Volunteers will play Tennessee defense against a top 15 team, the Volunteers will effectively run the ball against a tough, athletic defense and the Volunteers will play the kicking game like it was one of the General's most ardent maxims instead of a fast-fading fad.
There are several factors mitigating against the genesis of such an unprecedented series of achievements. To begin with the Vols rank No. 11 in the SEC in both total defense and rushing offense. Georgia is No. 5 in pass defense, No. 4 in run defense and No. 3 in total defense. The Bulldogs under Mark Richt have consistently fielded one of the SEC's best special teams. In recent years the Volunteers have been among the SEC's most inconsistent special teams' squads with the notable exception of anyone named Colquitt.
Then there's the respective road vs. home record comparisons. Richt is 23-3 in road games during his tenure at UGA while Tennessee has lost eight of its last 10 at home against ranked teams. Richt is 3-0 at Neyland Stadium and 4-2 overall against the Vols while Phillip Fulmer hasn't beat a Georgia team in Knoxville since 1999.
However he has won on the last two trips to Athens and last year's 51-33 upset hasn't been forgotten. How could any proud program like Georgia's forget the second most points ever surrendered between the hedges of Sanford Stadium? That can be a powerful motivator as it was when Cal, which lost to the Vols by 17 points to open the 2006 season, responded with a 15-point victory a year later. When the Bulldogs dropped a 19-14 decision at home to Tennessee in 2004 they answered with a 27-13 victory in Knoxville the following season. In fact, Georgia's three victories under Richt on The Hill have been by an average of 14.3 points.
Throw all that history and numbers out the window, which the Vols would certainly like to do, and you still have problems projecting a Tennessee victory over Georgia. For all the good Auburn's surprising upset of Florida did for the Volunteers chances in the SEC East, it did nothing for their collective confidence. After all this was the same Florida team that ran UT out of Gainesville on a rail. It's also the same Gator squad that struggled to defeat mediocre Ole Miss the very next week before losing to very average Auburn in The Swamp. Georgia beat that same Mississippi team by 17 points and knocked off top 15 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
That victory was very revealing because Georgia showed the mental and physical toughness to win the war of the trenches, to withstand a dynamic Bama rally and to prevail in overtime at one of the most hostile venues in the nation. To this point in the season Tennessee has exhibited little more than a bully mentality of piling on the points once it gets a bad team down. That shouldn't be mistaken as a killer instinct.
Undoubtedly, the Vols have better personnel in place on both sides of the ball and an assent can be expected sometime this season. But it will take more than a week's rest and some lineup shuffling to defeat a motivated Georgia team that has better talent in both lines.
VOLS KNOW THEIR ENEMY
"We have met the enemy and he is us."
Walt Kelly, originator of the "Pogo" cartoon character, penned that memorable line three decades ago to accompany one of his illustrations. Tennessee's football team borrowed the sentiment – if not the exact wording – last week.
Recognizing that most of Tennessee's wounds have been self-inflicted, the coaching staff spent the open-date week working to correct the mistakes that caused the Vols to beat themselves in September losses to Cal and Florida. They missed tackles, leading to long runs. They blew secondary assignments, leading to long passes. They whiffed on blocks, turning third-and-short situations into punting situations. They gave up cheap touchdowns on punt returns and more cheap touchdowns on fumble returns.
Last week, in a gridiron variation of Walt Kelly's profound prose, UT head coach Phillip Fulmer noted: "You've got to avoid losing before you can win."
That was true when the first game was played, and it's still true today. Even after 100-plus years, the essence of football remains blocking, tackling and not beating yourself. That's why, instead of working on triple-reverses and flea-flicker plays, Tennessee spent its open-date week improving its fundamentals.
"Each year you've got to look at where you are and what you need, and our needs were to do a lot more fundamental things," Fulmer said this week. "We spent a lot more time on the fundamentals of tackling and blocking. We got a good bit of work in the kicking game, as well."
Many of Tennessee's mistakes in the Cal and Florida games occurred at positions manned by young players. First-year starters in the offensive line failed to execute on third-and-one and third-and-two. Youthful wide receivers ran incorrect routes and dropped catchable passes. Rookie secondary starters blew coverage assignments.
Young players make mistakes but they eventually mature into veteran players. Six weeks into the 2007 season some of Tennessee's young players have begun to mature a bit. They won't make the same game-changing mistakes this Saturday against Georgia they made against Cal and Florida.
Bottom line: Tennessee won't beat Tennessee Saturday at Neyland Stadium. The Vols have met the enemy, and it wears orange.