There's no less on the line in the SEC East for Tennessee and Georgia this weekend than in most years; if anything, there's more. Every SEC East team save for Kentucky has one conference loss, meaning all teams control their own destinies. Kentucky so far appears to be the real deal (we'll know more after this Thursday's game with South Carolina), but the odds of any team getting through conference games with South Carolina, LSU, Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Tennessee unscathed are slim-to-none for a team with no defense.
There's plenty of reason for Bulldog fans or Volunteer fans to believe their respective team has a chance in this game.
For the Bulldogs:
Mark Richt has never lost in Neyland Stadium. Further, Neyland Stadium hasn't been nearly the impenetrable fortress this decade that it was in the 1990s. The away team has generally owned this series, and Mark Richt has one of the best away records in the country.
Last year's shellacking of the Bulldogs between the hedges was more a function of Bulldog mistakes than of Tennessee having a markedly better team, as if there wasn't already enough motivation for Georgia.
Georgia's run game appears to be coming together at the right time.
Tennessee's defense has been a "polite audience" for opposing offenses this year (h/t Orson Swindle for that phrase).
Tennessee has yet to prove it can run the ball consistently, has a nasty habit of giving away at least one touchdown per game on special teams, and the Vol receivers are young, drop-prone and have not shown breakaway speed.
For the Volunteers:
Georgia has a young offensive line, a quarterback who has yet to live up to an upside we've been hearing about for two years but have yet to see realized, mediocre receivers without breakaway speed, and an average defense that has been pushed around at the line of scrimmage by South Carolina and Ole Miss (hardly offensive juggernauts).
Tennessee leads the SEC in pass offense, with Lucas Taylor actually averaging more yards-per-game than Robert Meachem was at this time last year. Erik Ainge doesn't make very many mistakes, with a 10-2 TD-INT ratio.
LaMarcus Coker is back, giving hope that the run game will pick up enough to be respectable.
Tennessee historically has been most dangerous when injured and cornered. With Fulmer's job likely to be on the line in this game and two embarrassing blowout losses under its belt already, Tennessee is as injured and cornered as it's been in a while.
How to beat both teams
Georgia has not demonstrated a consistent passing game yet this year. Expect the Vol defense to sell out on the run and make Stafford beat them passing. Will the Stafford from last year's Auburn game show up? Or will the Stafford from most games this year who has looked sloppy and bewildered, and who overthrows his passes show up? I believe Stafford to be one of the two keys to who wins this game.
The way to beat Tennessee this year is to play a cover two to take away the deep pass, forcing either runs or underneath passes. Both high quality teams that Tennessee has played this year have been able to stuff the run with their front four, forcing Tennessee into dink-and-dunk short pass mode. Ainge has passed for nearly 300 yards per game and thrown for a high completion percentage this way, but the inability to run has cost the Vols in the red zone and on third-and-short dearly.
So what's going to happen?
If Stafford can get the passing game going, it will be a long day for the Vols. It's also possible, with the way Tennessee's defense has looked this year, that it could sell out on the run and still get trucked by Georgia's talented tailbacks.
The flip side is Georgia may not be able to put up points in bunches if it turns into a shootout.
The other key to the game is whether Tennessee gives up points and/or heartbreaking swaths of field position on special teams. There's no reason to believe they won't give up a touchdown on a boneheaded special teams play until they demonstrate otherwise.
If someone put a gun to my head or I was dumb enough to wager on this game, I'd pick Georgia by 10 points (I don't care if Tennessee is a two-point favorite). However, I am superstitious enough to believe that the Vols are at their most dangerous right now, with the burner on Fulmer's seat set to full. Really, I don't think any outcome to this game could surprise me.