Broadcast: CBS Game of the Week
Series: Tennessee leads 17-12-2
Last Meeting: Georgia wins 26-24
Will he or won't he? The #1 in question is Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen and the question is whether he'll play against Georgia on Saturday after suffering what reports indicate is a hairline fracture of his left collarbone. Clausen hasn't practiced all week or even thrown on the side, which raises doubts about his fitness for duty. With an off week following Georgia to prepare for Alabama, Clausen would have three weeks to make a more complete recovery if he skips Saturday's contest. However it could become a condition that he has to play with the rest of the way enduring pain without incurring further risk to the same injury.
If Clausen can't go (and it's becoming increasingly more likely he won't) the Vols will turn to C.J. Leak, a 6-4, 225, transfer from Wake Forest, who may be best known for being the older brother of Chris Leak considered by many to be this year's top high school prospect at quarterback. C.J. Leak hasn't played since the 2000 season and didn't appear sharp during the Orange and White game last spring or the season opener in a mop-up role vs. Wyoming. Those outings don't bode well for a Tennessee offense that has struggled all year and faces it toughest challenge in Athens. True freshman James Banks would be next in line at signal caller but he's been pulling recent reps at wide receiver where he played in the Arkansas game.
Both Leak and Banks add an element of mobility not presence with Clausen at the reins, which helps to neutralize the numerical advantage defenses enjoy when the quarterback doesn1t have to be accounted for as a running threat. Either Leak or Banks would also be better able to avoid the relentless pressure Clausen has seen so far this season. Plus, Tennessee is more likely to install packages that include roll out pass options, sprint outs and down-the-line options to isolate that speed on the corners. Leak and Banks have strong throwing arms although neither has demonstrated the type of accuracy that has allowed Clausen to complete passes at a 67 percent clip despite dealing with heavy pressure and limited targets.
Wide receiver Kelley Washington may have the best arm on Tennessee's roster and he's logged some time in practice behind center this week. But with Washington tossin for Clausen, who would catch the ball? Regardless of where he lines up, Washington is pure magic with the ball in his hands and the Vols have to make a concerted effort to get him more touches against Georgia.
Ultimately, the onus falls on Tennessee's offensive line to dominate up front, something it hasn't done to this point against any opponent. The task is even more difficult than usual with starting guard Anthony Herrera sidelined and reserve Jason Respert questionable with a shoulder injury. True freshman Rob Smith is getting a crash course in blocking basics in anticipation of providing significant minutes against Georgia as the principle backup to Chavis Smith and Sean Young.
Reversal of Fortune:
After posting nine straight victories over Georgia, including eight years in a row from 1992 to 1999, the worm finally turned in 2000 with the Bulldogs winning at Athens. Last year they came to Neyland Stadium and sprung an upset to make it two straight over their nemesis and now have an opportunity to take command of the SEC East with a third consecutive win over the Vols.
Georgia overcame another obstacle last week with a first-ever win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa with its best performance of the season. Tailback Musa Smith carried for 121 yards in 21 carries and quarterback David Greene directed an efficient attack with cool aplomb. Kicker David Bennett booted the game winner from 32 yards away in the last minute of play.
Despite Smith's breakout game, the Bulldogs still rank just 10th in the SEC in rushing and the remainder of their backs managed only 35 yards against Alabama in 21 carries, or the same number of attempts as Smith had alone. Considering Georgia exploited Alabama's league leading rush defense, the Bulldogs suspect running game may be over the hump. If Georgia establishes its ground attack against Tennessee, it could be a long day for the Vols who will already have their hands full with wide receivers Terrance Edwards, Fred Gibson and Damien Gray. An effective day rushing would also provide Greene the time he needs to connect down field and set up his play-action package.
Last year the Vols won the battle in the trenches, but couldn't overcome Georgia's kicking game which consistently provided great field position and scored a touchdown on a punt return by Gray. Tennessee will need to win the kicking game and to gain the advantage in turnovers if it expects to pull an upset Saturday in Athens.
Dustin Colquitt has been a different punter this season than the freshman who wilted against Georgia last year, but questions still surround Phillip Newman who is filling in for injured starter Alex Walls. Newman did hit a couple of clutch field goals in overtime last week, but he also misfired on a 36-yard attempt just prior to the half that would have given Tennessee a 13-3 advantage at intermission, and may have allowed the Vols to win in regulation.
Georgia natives Jabari Davis and Derrick Tinsley will carry much of Tennessee's hopes as well as the football against Georgia. Cedric Houston is wearing a heavy cast following thumb surgery and will be limited to special teams, if he plays at all. Will this be the game we see true freshman Gerald Riggs Jr. run the football?
This is the biggest question mark outside of Clausen's availability. Will a confident Georgia take care of business against Tennessee now that the Bulldogs are in the driver's seat in the SEC East? Will the Vols respond like defending division champions given a second chance to repeat in the East? How will Georgia handle the higher expectations created by its 5-0 start and No. 6 national ranking? Conversely will Tennessee find motivation in the role of underdog that it didn't have when expectations were much higher?
Then there's the matter of last week's emotional encounters that saw Georgia roar from behind to score a late win over Alabama, and Tennessee hang on in six overtimes to survive an upset against Arkansas?
Georgia is at home and doesn't have have the added hour of playing time to recover from that Tennessee does. Has that victory brought this UT team closer together and activated a chemistry that was missing before? This is the Vols first genuine road game of the season and their biggest challenge. Will they be charged to play and up to the task, or will they be emotional drained and fold the tents?
Then there's the matter of how the Vols will respond without Clausen at the controls? Sometimes a team rallies around the replacement. Tennessee doesn't have to look any further than the last time it was in Georgia to recall how LSU turned the tables, when starting quarterback Rohan Davey and tailback Brandon Toefield went down in the first half, by coming from behind to upset the Vols?
It's not what you would expect in this situation, but it's not unprecedented, and stranger things have happened?
In addition to the home field advantage Georgia appears to have several other edges in this contest including a healthy linebacking corps that is probably the SEC's best, a healthy, proven quarterback in David Greene, more depth at skilled positions and a better place kicker. A Tennessee win would require the Vols to play at a level they haven't reached this season and it would take C.J Leak's career-best performance. That might be too much to hope for on one afternoon in Athens. The Vols need the two weeks to regroup and come back strong for Alabama.
Prediction: Georgia 30, Tennessee 19.