As has been the case for almost a decade now, Tennessee comes to the Georgia game with its season at a crossroads. While the Florida game has been the one that takes the wind out of our sails in each of the last eight years, it's been Georgia that has determined which way our season is ultimately going to go. Consider the history:
- 2004: A Tennessee team playing two freshmen at quarterback lost all the momentum from a 30-28 win over Florida by getting destroyed by the eventual undefeated Auburn juggernaut 34-10. Tennessee went to Athens the next week to face #3 Georgia as 12-point underdogs and pulled the shocker 19-14. The Vols went on to win ten games and the SEC East.
- 2005: The Vols lost to Florida but regained momentum with The Rally at Death Valley. With Rick Clausen firmly entrenched at quarterback, the Vols couldn't make any headway against the eventual SEC Champion in a 27-14 loss in Knoxville. Tennessee, preseason top five, would lose four more games and fail to make a bowl for the first time since 1988.
- 2006: The crossroads within a crossroads game. The Vols blew out California but lost to eventual National Champion Florida by a point. But the ghosts of 2005 were alive and well in the first half in Athens as the Dawgs opened up a 24-7 lead. Tennessee responded with a fury, finishing the night off with the perfect fourth quarter in a 51-33 stunner. The Vols finished the regular season 9-3, a strong comeback season.
- 2007: The most obvious crossroad in this series: the '07 Vols had been demolished by Cal and Florida, and the '07 Dawgs would eventually finish the year ranked second nationally. But on this day in Neyland Stadium it was all Tennessee as the Vols crushed Georgia 35-14, changing the narrative of the 2007 season and giving UT the tiebreaker it needed to claim the SEC East.
- 2008: Phillip Fulmer's fate was still up in the air as UT went to Athens, but Georgia refused to be denied as a Vol offense led by Nick Stephens was simply ineffective in a 26-14 loss. The wheels would come completely off for the Vols in the coming weeks with additional losses to Alabama, South Carolina, and Wyoming.
- 2009: Though Kiffin's Vols would ultimately finish 7-6, this win over Georgia was a revelation. Not only did it change the course of a season that had already accumulated three losses, but the nature of the 45-19 win made this the one UT fans could hang their hats on, the one that made you believe that Kiffin could work.
- 2010: With Georgia in shambles in the early part of their season and the Vols coming off heartbreak in Baton Rouge, something had to give. And the Vols gave, over and over again in the worst loss of Derek Dooley's first season. Georgia won 41-14 and it could've been much worse. Though the Vols did eventually reach bowl eligibility once they made the switch to Tyler Bray, it was this game that truly showed, for the first time, the talent differential between Knoxville and the rest of the SEC elite.
- 2011: The Vols came into this game thinking about the SEC East and left it without Tyler Bray and without much hope for the future. Georgia allowed the Tennessee offense inside its own 40 a number of times, but never much closer as Tennessee lost a frustrating affair 20-12. The Dawgs caught fire and rolled to the SEC East title, while Tennessee wouldn't play within one possession of an SEC foe again until late November.
Simply put: in the last eight years, when the Vols beat Georgia they go on to have a good year. When Georgia beats the Vols, things get ugly.
While the crossroads aren't clear for Derek Dooley's job security just yet - this isn't "win or you're fired" - the narrative of this season will absolutely change depending on Saturday's outcome. All the preseason hope that these Vols could be about not just survival but success lives or dies on Saturday in Athens. Win, and hope lives - hope not just for Dooley, but for the SEC East, a meaningful chase into October. Lose, and hope flees...and we have a long off week of conversations about Derek Dooley, with more undefeated teams looming on the horizon.
I know you've got questions about Akron, so do I. But the debate of last Saturday night - a game that looks really good in the box score but flunked the eye test for 3.5 quarters - is really irrelevant. Questions about whether Tennessee actually played well against the Zips don't matter, because the Vols have to play unquestionably well in Athens to give themselves a chance. We're often slaves to the last thing we saw, and in this case what we saw in the Georgia Dome and the first 2.5 quarters against Florida are buried underneath the crushing weight of the end of the Florida game and an inability to put Akron away.
So there are certainly still questions about this team. Questions about Tyler Bray, even though he just turned in the second non-Manning 400 yard game in the history of the program, joining his performance against Cincinnati last year. Questions about the run game even though Rajion Neal just turned in the most yards (151) since Tauren Poole against Oregon two years ago. And most importantly, questions about a defense even though the Vols have one fewer interception in four games than they did all of last season.
You cannot find answers against Akron. But we will find them in Athens. I just hope we like what we find.
Until Tyler Bray beats a good team - and this Georgia squad certainly qualifies - he will not ascend to the ranks of the truly great Tennessee quarterbacks no matter how many yards he throws for. Tacked along with Bray are questions about the entire offense: how much and how effectively the Vols can run on Georgia, and how well the Vols can pass protect if Georgia brings as much pressure as Florida did. Georgia really frustrated Bray and took away all of Tennessee's big plays last season. Will it be different this time around?
And then there's the defense, which is very much a work in progress. How much of it is newness, and how much of it can we expect to get better? Georgia's offense was effective against Missouri and has been downright dominant in the other three contests. Tennessee's defense has been feast and famine: eight interceptions is tied for second nationally, but 20 plays of 20+ yards allowed is 102nd nationally, tied for Arkansas for dead last in the SEC. And when you add in an inability to get to the quarterback (three sacks vs Georgia State, one each against NC State and Akron), it's been more famine than feast.
Plain and simple, if the Vols are going to continue to play this fast and loose defensively, they have to get to Aaron Murray and they have to force turnovers. That's bad news because Murray tends to hang out around a 3/1 TD/INT ratio, and though he hasn't done it much this season, he can still hurt you with his feet as well.
If Bray, the run game, and the defense are looking to make a statement, now is the time.
Because if now is not the time, Derek Dooley is running out of time.
The 2009 win over Georgia was so valuable because it made you believe in Lane Kiffin. It made a 7-5 regular season feel like a success. It's the win Dooley has never been able to land because the clock didn't run out in Baton Rouge. Because the happiest we've seen Dooley is still those thirty seconds when we thought it was over two years ago this week.
People ask me all the time what I think UT fans think about Derek Dooley. The best way I know to say it is this: I think we want to like him very badly.
How many orange pants did you see in Neyland Stadium two weeks ago? How much have we always enjoyed his one-liners? How much do we want the story to be that the guy who pulled us out of the ditch gets to be the guy who takes us to the top? And how much do we not want to start over again?
But until Dooley wins a game like the one on Saturday, we can't do it. Patience died long ago, and now there are only wins and losses left. And there have been far too few of the one and far too many of the other so far.
But it only takes one of these. Just one. One we can point to. One we can hang our hats on. One that makes us say, "See, this can work. This guy can win here."
If it's not Saturday in Athens, we go into a long off week. Then we go to Starkville to face a weird situation where the Vols could beat a ranked undefeated team in October but not have it resonate among the fanbase because that team is named Mississippi State. Then it's Alabama, who is unquestionably the best team in college football. Then it's on the road in Columbia to face what could be yet another undefeated team. And then you're out of chances this season.
Dooley could go 8-4 and save his job. But 8-4 with losses to Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina would not make anyone believe.
It's that hope, that belief that's on the line in Athens. It will become an endangered species with another loss. But just one win, just one in a game like this, will give it so very much life.
Are the Vols ready to win a game like this? Is Derek Dooley capable of winning a game like this?
The longest or shortest off week of your life is on the back end of this one. Will we be talking about success or survival?