Like the Tennessee-Florida rivalry, this one is born out of divisional alignment in 1992. The Vols lead the overall series 20-16-2. Tennessee won the first eight annual meetings and Georgia never beat Tennessee in the 90s. The Dawgs turned that around in the first part of this decade, winning four straight from 2000-2003. Since then, the rivalry has found a relatively even playing ground: the Vols are 3-2 in the last five games, but for the first time in a long time, neither team feels like it has the other's number.
Georgia was preseason #1, but the Vols weren't impressed after the 35-14 beating they gave the Dawgs in 2007. But by the time the 2008 meeting rolled around in Athens, Tennessee had already lost thrice, and Georgia had been violently dethroned by Alabama. The Dawgs rolled up yardage but big plays from Tennessee's two best players, Robert Ayers and Eric Berry, kept them from rolling up points. With Nick Stephens at the helm, Tennessee scored off Berry's end zone INT to cut Georgia's lead to 20-14, but the defense couldn't keep Georgia from adding to their lead, and the offense had done all it could. The Dawgs finished it out with a 26-14 win that dropped the Vols to 2-4. Georgia would later lose to their two biggest rivals, Florida and Georgia Tech, and finish a long way from their preseason expectations.
Matt Stafford was the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft, and Knowshon Moreno wasn't far behind him. So while the offense returns four starters on the line and All-SEC WR AJ Green, much of the focus is on Joe Cox and Caleb King, and much of Georgia's fate may be in their hands. Cox has that "fifth year senior who waited his turn" vibe about him, having seen action here and there in the last three years behind Stafford. As such, key words like "game management" seem to keep coming up when you read about him.
If Georgia is to find success while their quarterback merely manages, that puts pressure on King and the running game. Some sources said King had a relatively disappointing spring, and there will be other carries for guys like redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas. No matter who's handling the ball, Georgia has to find success in the running game for this team to be successful. And in a comparison we love to make around these parts, they were humbled last season after championship expectations fell short, lost their superstar #1 draft pick quarterback, and return an offense with only one proven star and a quarterback who waited his turn. Can the "no stars" philosophy work for the Dawgs in 2009? If so they'll need to be bolstered by the...
This is a unit that returns six starters, two at each position group, but one that also has some atoning to do: last year the Dawgs gave up 41, 49 and 45 in their three losses, and also gave up 38 apiece to LSU and Kentucky in shootout wins. They were 22nd nationally in total defense but 58th in scoring defense. The best fix may be the reunited tandem of Jeff Owens and Geno Atkins at defensive tackle, which will be the clear strength of a defensive line hurting for experienced playmakers at end. Rennie Currian had 115 tackles last year and is a preseason All-SEC linebacker. Prince Miller returns at corner and Rashad Jones at safety. Georgia was -3 in turnovers last year, and with ball control offense in '09 they need that number to make a big jump in their favor.
It's baptism by fire right away with this group, opening at Oklahoma State.
Best Case Scenario for the Vols
Georgia comes in depleted by their murderous schedule, and Tennessee is rolling on a 4-1 start. Again, similar themes in the best case scenario: Tennessee's defense takes advantage of an inexperienced quarterback, and by this point key freshmen are experienced playmakers for the Vol offense. Jonathan Crompton out-manages Joe Cox, Montario Hardesty out-rushes Caleb King, and the Vols find just enough points against a stingy Dawg defense to upset Georgia in Knoxville.
Worst Case Scenario for the Vols
Now that this series has finally reached some even ground, the worst thing that could happen is for Georgia to gain a definitive upper hand. Regardless of the outcome of the five previous games for either team, Georgia comes out and is simply better than Tennessee - the UGA defense attacks Crompton and keeps the Vols in single digits, while Joe Cox is in rhythm and the Dawgs get all the points they need. Georgia wins comfortably in Knoxville, and the Vols are forced to deal with the realization that right now, they're just not on the same level as the Bulldogs.
Game Importance Ranking: 9.4
This is the highest one you'll see. It's above the Gators because while we're given no chance to win that one, this one in Knoxville is a slightly different story. I can't make a rational argument that the Vols are going to beat Florida or Alabama on the road. I think the rational argument can be made for what would be an upset here. I'm not saying it's going to happen...I'm just saying it's more in the realm of possibilities.
Last year the Dawgs dominated the yardage battle, but the game was tight on the scoreboard throughout. Is there really that much talent separation between these two teams? The Vols had a better defense statistically last year, Georgia is inexperienced at key positions on offense...if Jonathan Crompton improves (and how could he not?), are we really that far apart?
Georgia's schedule to open the season - at Oklahoma State, South Carolina, at Arkansas, Arizona State, LSU, at Tennessee - is beyond brutal, and the Dawgs could be burdened with a handful of losses already. But even if not, it's very very difficult to play at the high level winning all of those games would require for six consecutive weeks. The Dawgs get Vanderbilt and an off week after Tennessee, making Knoxville the last real obstacle in the opening stretch...something I think works to UT's advantage.
So on our schedule, this is the biggest game that we realistically have a chance in. That to me makes it more important than Florida. UCLA is of first importance, then Auburn...but if the Vols win those two, this becomes the greatest test. Kiffin and the Vols will be asked to clear the bar at higher levels each week...but if Tennessee walks into this game 4-1, the Vols will truly have a chance for a one-year turnaround. More than that, if the Vols want to get back in the annual SEC elite conversation, they don't do that just with one stunning upset, but by consistently beating teams on their same level. If Georgia has pulled even with Tennessee, the most important thing Tennessee can do is make sure they don't pull ahead. That starts this season in Knoxville.
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