Tennessee's closest geographical rival is Kentucky; Commonwealth Stadium is ten miles closer to Neyland than Vanderbilt. This means, of course, that Tennessee's closest geographical rival that actually cares about football is the University of Georgia.
The Vols and Dawgs have all the necessary ingredients for an outstanding southern football rivalry, plus the catalyst to take us to DEFCON 1 in a head coach who owns both orange pants and the proudest last name in Georgia football history.
And yet, the Tennessee-Georgia rivalry likes to hang out between DEFCON 2-4. Maybe it's the fact that both of our hearts are already full with a hatred of Florida and a school from Alabama. But it's also because we tend to have a hard time being good simultaneously. We also have a hard time staying within one possession of each other: in the nineteen meetings since the league made us annual rivals in 1992, only five have been decided by seven points or less. It's an amazing stat for two programs as good as UT and UGA in the last two decades. But that's been the ratio: about once every four years you get Heath Shuler on 4th and 13, or Jeff Hall for the win, or a Hobnailed Boot, or freshman Erik Ainge stealing Georgia's Christmas tree. The rest of the time, it's been unexpected bloodshed.
How many of us saw Tennessee coming back to not only win, but dominate down 24-7 late in the second quarter in 2006? How many of us thought our defense that had been wrecked by Cal and Florida would completely shut down Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno the following year? No human being on the face of the earth saw what Jonathan Crompton did in 2009 coming.
And last year, with Tennessee having played LSU to the wire and Georgia at 1-4, we all thought the Vols would get the job done...and the Dawgs gave Dooley a beating.
So if the narrative of this rivalry is now, "Expect the unexpected by at least three possessions", the subplot is what those wins and losses have meant to the careers of the head coaches.
Phillip Fulmer may have saved his job against Georgia in 2007. He may have lost it against Georgia in 2008. Lane Kiffin got his first big win against Georgia in 2009, a game that made all of us believe. I'm not sure that Mark Richt saved his job by beating Derek Dooley's Year Zero team in 2010, but he sure turned the season back in the right direction.
So we come to this Saturday with two coaches again at the crossroads. This feels like a DEFCON 3 game: very important to both sides, though not one that will make or break anything or feature either program at their very best. But for the rest of the story of this season, the winner and the loser will be going in two very different directions on Saturday.
For Tennessee, this game has consequences. Sure it would've been great to beat LSU last year, and it hurt to lose in The Swamp. But none of Dooley's losses thus far have been unexpected, nor have they prevented Tennessee from ultimately being something more than they really were. Had the clock stayed at zero in Baton Rouge last year, the story would've been that LSU lost to Tennessee because they turned the ball over four times, not because the Vols were actually the better team. And whatever chance Tennessee had to be the better team in Gainesville was lost with Justin Hunter's ACL.
But on Saturday, the Vols could be the best team on the field. Dooley himself will tell you that we're still learning exactly who this team is and what it can do. If you lose to Georgia, the hope of what you can do against LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina in the weeks ahead will take a serious blow.
On the other hand, beating Georgia would give Dooley his first big win. Beating Kentucky last November was important. Beating Cincinnati the way we did this September was encouraging. But nothing would compare to what a win on Saturday would be. Like Kiffin two years earlier, Dooley can make people believe in more than just the promise of the future if Tennessee beats Georgia - we can start to believe in the present.
If you lose, all signs point to it being the first of at least three straight. LSU and Alabama are the two best teams in college football, and they're next. So it could be a long three weeks leading into a South Carolina game that would carry some pressure this week's game does not. The sooner you can make us believe, the better...and nothing makes you a believer like winning.
For Georgia, a loss turns the temperature back up on Richt's seat - not enough to get him fired, but another step down that path. And on the other hand, a win at Neyland Stadium - where Georgia has lost 80-33 in their last two trips - continues Georgia on the path they've been walking since the loss to South Carolina, laying the foundation for improvement that could take the Dawgs all the way to Atlanta.
We're a ways away from seriously entertaining Tennessee in that conversation...but a win on Saturday would be a good start.
There are consequences for both sides and both coaches, risk and reward. Dooley's trust, Richt's career, and the seasons of both teams will come to the crossroads on Saturday night in Neyland Stadium. Fittingly, Vegas calls it dead even. Will we get more bloodshed and violence, one team elated and the other in despair? Or will we get the classic game this rivalry is due for?
Expect the unexpected...whatever that is.