Overlooked and under-appreciated

One of the top five defenses in college football will be on display today when Tennessee visits Georgia ... and, no, it doesn't belong to the Bulldogs.

With so much attention focused on the struggles of the Vol offense, the success of the Vol defense has gone virtually unnoticed. That's unfortunate because John Chavis' stop unit is allowing just 244.4 yards per game, a figure that ranks fifth nationally.

You can argue that four of Tennessee's opponents – UCLA, UAB, Auburn and Northern Illinois – are offensively challenged. You can argue that Florida was content to run the ball and burn the clock after its special-teams play produced a 17-0 first-quarter lead against the Vols.

Those are valid arguments, to be sure, but they don't change the fact that only four defenses in major college football have been stingier than Tennessee's.

Low-key as always, Chavis seems mildly pleased with his troops' performance to date.

"We felt like we would be really strong in the secondary, and that's kind of been the case," he said. "Our front is playing really well and we're really pleased the way some linebackers are playing, considering the experience we lost there. That was the biggest concern ... the experience we lost there (Jerod Mayo, Ryan Karl) and getting some people to play at that level.

"We felt like we could have a good, solid defense, and that's about where we are. We're not a dominating defense but we're a good, solid defense that's working hard to become better."

Tennessee struggled to stop the run in 2007 but seems to have resolved that issue in '08. The Vols rank No. 13 nationally, allowing just 90.6 rushing yards per game.

Is the Big Orange run defense really that much better than a year ago?

"That's hard to judge, considering the style of offenses that we've seen," Chavis said. "We've not seen anybody that's going to line up in an I-backfield and try to run it downhill on us the way Georgia will. We'll be tested this weekend. We'll know the answer to that a lot better after this week. It'll be a physical football game. That's the style they like to play."

The Bulldogs' ground game gets an added boost today with the return from injury of fullback Brannan Southerland, a bruising 6-0, 240-pound lead blocker.

"They're getting their fullback back, so they'll be a better running team than they've been thus far this season," Chavis said. "He's a tremendous player, and he means a lot to their offense in terms of them being able to run the football out of the I and do the things they want to do."

Tennessee did not allow a touchdown in Game 2 vs. UAB or Game 5 vs. Northern Illinois. Given how much trouble the Vol offense has reaching the end zone, you wonder: Does Chavis coach any differently knowing his troops have so little margin for error?

"You might say, 'Hey, we're going to take a few more chances or we're going to be more aggressive,'" he said. "Our offense will get it going. I've seen a tremendous amount of improvement in them."

Whether Tennessee's offense is productive or not, Chavis' challenge is the same.

"The thing we've got to do is go get stops, get off the field," he said. "Right now our average possession on defense is a tad over 5 plays per possession. That's not where you need to be. You need to be in the mid-4s if you're playing really good defense and getting off the field. We need to get our average plays-per-possession down to give our offense more time to score and we need to make more big plays."

Since intercepting four passes in the first half of the opener at UCLA, Vol defenders have registered just five turnovers in the 4½ games since. Incredibly, they have yet to recover a fumble.

"We've done a great job of getting interceptions but we don't have a fumble recovery," Chavis conceded. "We haven't made that happen this year, and that's a big part of where we need to improve to play up to our level from a defensive standpoint."


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