We're exactly where we thought we'd be: 2-3 heading to Athens. But I think we came closer to being something else than we thought we'd come. We play these games because nobody saw two overtimes against UAB coming, nor did we seriously consider a fourth quarter with the outcome still in doubt against the Gators. Last week might've been the most predictable outcome yet simply because Les Miles was involved.
Really, there are only two things we haven't done: get blown out from start to finish (did you hear we play Bama in two weeks?)...and win. Not against an FCS school or a Conference USA team in two overtimes. Against an opponent that matters.
We've been competitive with good teams. And quite literally, we've come as close to victory as you possibly can without actually achieving it. Everything we've seen thus far, combined with Georgia's 1-4 start, put us in a situation for the first time where I believe the outcome really matters on Saturday.
Of course, it matters every Saturday, and of course, beating Oregon, Florida, or the last play going differently at LSU would've done wonders for Derek Dooley. But this, to me, feels like the first big one where losing would be a true disappointment. Maybe not if we'd been less competitive, maybe not if two or three plays go differently for Georgia...but as things stand, this is Dooley's first big game where we can entertain more than competitiveness.
That means the risk/reward factor is higher in this game than any he's seen before.
What do the Vols have to do to cash in?
1. Tauren Poole gets remembered
We've wanted to pull for this kid more than others for his patience, which has been rewarded with the lion's share of the carries in the UT running game this year. He got banged up against Florida, who eats our ground game alive on an annual basis anyway, and had only 16 carries between the Florida and UAB games. In the other three games, he's had at least 17 carries and triple digit yards. And remember what sort of offensive line he's working with.
What we won't ultimately remember is his performance against Oregon because we lost by 35, and we won't remember what was a man-sized effort against a great LSU defense last week (24 carries for 109 yards) because of the ending. This week, a similar effort against a lesser defense is Tennessee's best course of action.
The UGA run defense did what it was supposed to do against Louisiana-Lafayette and a team with Ryan Mallett at quarterback. They gave up 189 yards to South Carolina, but that was on 52 carries. But the last two weeks, the run defense took a step backward: 44 carries for 179 yards for Mississippi State, and 47 carries for 235 yards for Colorado. 36% of those yards in the last two weeks came from the quarterback, and if Matt Simms accounts for 36% of our rushing yards on Saturday we're in bad shape. But I think Tauren Poole is better than anybody Miss. State or Colorado have in their backfield. We need another big day from this kid...and for it to be a day that gets remembered this time, we also need:
2. A.J. Green does not
Georgia's in no danger of forgetting about him, but what I was most afraid of last week didn't happen only because Green cramped up and Caleb King fumbled. I thought Green might show up and be the spark that turned everything around for the Dawgs. He did the best he could with the snaps he got - 7 catches for 119 yards and 2 TDs - but the fact that Georgia still lost means you can't buy into the quick fix.
But back in Athens where any mistake could start a "here we go again" spiral, any big play that A.J. makes is also going to be worth a little extra something from the home crowd, and this Georgia team needs any little extra something they can get right now.
The Vols won't stop him. But if they can contain him, they can continue to keep Georgia's offense in the average category. If/when Georgia breaks out on offense, Green will almost certainly be the catalyst. The Vols need to make sure they delay it a week, and make it Vanderbilt's problem to solve.
3. Matt Simms spreads the wealth around
As it relates to the previous point, Green had 44% of Georgia's receptions last week and 54% of their receiving yards. No other Bulldog caught more than two passes with #8 back in the lineup. Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, Gerald Jones returned and was responsible for 42% of Simms' completions and 38% of his passing yards. Other than the one big play to Justin Hunter though, the Vol passing game really had nothing else to offer; like Georgia, no other player caught more than two passes with GJones back.
In the first four games, Denarius Moore had 14 receptions for 220 yards and 4 TDs. At LSU, he had 2 catches for 19 yards. Some of that gets passed off on Patrick Peterson. But if Simms is truly making progress, I'd love to see him be able to go to more than just the primary target in the passing game. The one place the Vols can line up a ton of talent on the field at the same time is wide receiver: with Jones, Moore, Hunter and Luke Stocker on the field at the same time, Tennessee can create problems for any opposing secondary. Can Simms put some diversity in the Vol passing game...and of course, will the offensive line give him enough time to do so?
4. No special teams disasters
Blair Walsh and Drew Butler are as good as it gets in this department, so asking the Vols to win special teams on Saturday is unfair. However, there are things Tennessee can avoid. The kick coverage on General Zod last week was outstanding - no need to change that this week. Whoever is kicking field goals needs to make them, period. This team is not good enough to give away scoring opportunities.
We've seen a huge special teams play in this game more often than not in the last ten years. Who makes it this year?
5. Win the emotional battle
While it will be more complicated than "which team is most ready to play?", Tennessee needs to make sure they manage themselves the right way throughout. Despite the heartbreak in Baton Rouge, I still think Georgia is the more vulnerable team, just because they're dealing with something much more unexpected. Meanwhile, I think one of the bigger differences between Dooley and Kiffin is their use of emotion: while Kiffin encouraged the "Come to Jesus" sideline meetings that led to the whole team jumping up and down during the fourth quarter most weeks, Dooley emphasizes The Process. The Process isn't devoid of emotion...it just knows it can't rely on it.
If Tennessee makes something good happen early, will Georgia fold? We saw last week a team do something great against the Vols on play number one...and Tennessee handled it well. Since the end of the Oregon game, we've seen a Tennessee team that's all heart and all fight, to the finish. Georgia's issues have nothing to do with heart and effort thus far, but the sort of mistakes they've been making can eventually add up and take something away in that department.
Who's most ready to play at the start? And who manages their emotions and plays most efficiently throughout? It's a challenge for us because we're so thin, and it's a challenge for them because they haven't proved they can do it. Which team takes that important step forward on Saturday?