Key to the game

In football parlance KO stands for kickoff. In regards to the Tennessee Vols, however, it just as easily could stand for knockout.

Tennessee's inability to cover kickoffs was the knockout punch in the Vols' recent losses to Florida and Auburn. And it could be again today, when the Big Orange hosts Georgia at 12:21 in Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee ranks dead last among the 12 SEC teams in kickoff coverage, allowing an average of 36.5 yards per return. Georgia just happens to have one of the SEC's premier return men in Brandon Boykin. He averages 26.7 yards per runback, with a clutch 100-yarder in the Dawgs' 41-37 defeat of South Carolina.

Georgia mustered just 20 points vs. Arizona State two weeks ago and 13 points in last weekend's loss to LSU. The Vol defense should be able to contain the Dawgs today if Tennessee doesn't give them short-field opportunities via long kickoff returns.

Head coach Lane Kiffin realizes as much, which is why he revamped his kickoff-coverage unit this week, adding more players with speed to the group. Although he said Tennessee already did "a ton" of work on kick-coverage in practice each week, Kiffin increased the workload this week in hopes of upgrading a unit that struggled mightily the past three games.

Consider:

- Florida's Brandon James returned the opening kickoff 51 yards in Game 3, and a 15-yard facemask penalty enabled the Gators to take their first snap of the game at the Vol 30-yard line. Florida wound up with a cheap field goal and a quick 3-0 lead en route to a 23-13 win.

- Ohio's Chris Garrett returned Tennessee's first kickoff of Game 4 for a 95-yard touchdown, tying the score at 7-7 and putting the Vols on their heels. UT never managed to pull away and wound up winning just 34-23.

- Auburn burned the Vols in Game 5 for kickoff returns of 35, 39 and 52 yards - the last one setting up a game-clinching field goal after Tennessee had closed to 23-16 with 4:19 left. The Vols wound up losing 26-22.

All-America safety Eric Berry, a member of Tennessee's kick-coverage unit, can't explain why the Vols have struggled so mightily in that area.

"We can't really put our finger on it but we're getting it worked out this week," he said. "That's been a point of emphasis this week. We spent a lot of time on kickoffs, just to let you know, and it should be doing well this weekend."

If it is "doing well," the Vols should be able to contain a Georgia offense that has scored just 33 points the past two games combined. If Tennessee's kick-coverage is no better than it was the previous three games, however, today's game could go to the Dawgs.


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