In happier times, it was my favorite metaphor. While Tennessee was on top of the world in the 90s and early 2000s, three other SEC teams won National Championships with a fourth uncrowned down on The Plains. The one true conference was segregated into haves and have nots; while teams like Arkansas and Mississippi State might have one good year to escape the Kentuckys and Vanderbilts of the world, there was a generally established annual hierarchy: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU, and Tennessee ruled the south.
And then there was Georgia. Certainly better than the have nots, but lacking the big prize shared and deserved by the haves. Always better than the lower half, but never spoken of in the same breath as the upper during those years. And perhaps most importantly, the Dawgs couldn't sniff victory against their two most important rivals from Florida and Tennessee. The Georgia Bulldogs were the little kid at the adult table.
But that joke expired a long time ago. Since Tennessee's East Division title and Georgia's #2 ranking in 2007, the Dawgs are 38-19 and Tennessee is 26-28. Georgia won the SEC East last year and is ranked fifth right now. Tennessee failed to earn bowl eligibility for the second time in four years.
These days there are only two teams sitting at the adult table, and both reside in the SEC West. But it is still Georgia in the front of the waiting line. Having scored 40+ points in each of their first four games and fresh off an obliteration of Vanderbilt, Dawg fans are now asking if this Georgia team is ready to join the ranks of Alabama and LSU and compete for an SEC Championship, and beyond.
Tennessee is asking a different set of questions, but they too involve a move from one level to another. Derek Dooley will coach his 30th game at Tennessee on Saturday. A dozen of them have come against ranked opponents. So far the Vols are 0-11.
Tennessee has enjoyed being a part of the national college football conversation for a month this year, but all of that will end if the Vols go to 0-12, and it will come to an especially quick end if Tennessee is non-competitive. For Derek Dooley and this Tennessee program to make real progress, they have to beat a team like Georgia.
Leading the charge on Saturday will be two guys we may see on Sundays next year. Last year both defenses kept the quarterbacks in check, but the expectation is this time Aaron Murray and Tyler Bray will lead the way. As such, the first of our keys to victory is:
1. Which team makes more big plays?
The most obvious red flag for Tennessee in this game: big plays have been the bane of the Vol defense, surrendering 20 plays of 20+ yards, 102nd nationally. And here comes Georgia, first in the nation in offensive plays of 20+ yards with a staggering 35 of them in four games. But the Vols are no slouch here, with 23 plays of 20+ yards for Jim Chaney's offense, tied for 13th nationally. The Dawgs - who will get Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree back - have given up 15 plays of 20+ yards against a weaker schedule than what the Vols have faced.
There's no question that Georgia has shown itself to be more capable of sustainable offense - the Dawgs have shown incredible balance against inferior competition (227 rush/258 pass vs Buffalo, 328/385 vs Florida Atlantic, 302/265 vs Vanderbilt). But one beacon of hope is the Missouri game, where Georgia had just 113/242 and just 5.07 yards per play. For comparison, the Vols had 83/257 and 4.72 yards per play against Florida.
I'm not sure if this thing will get into shootout mode; the over/under is currently hanging around 58. But if it does, can Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, and Cordarrelle Patterson out-gun Aaron Murray and Georgia's fleet of receivers?
Two things the Vols can do to ease the big play burden:
2. More productivity on first down
Two weeks ago when we were beating Florida and life was good, I was writing a post in my head about how we really made life more difficult on ourselves than we had to. On the Vols' second touchdown drive, Tennessee converted 3rd and 10, 3rd and 11, 4th and 10, and 3rd and 3. (File this away in the "How 'bout we cut Tyler Bray some slack, eh?" folder.)
The Vols lead the SEC in third downs (62) and are second in third down conversions (25). While the percentage - 40.3% - is okay, I'm much more interested in Tennessee doing a better job on first down to eliminate the need.
Against the Gators, the Vols had six first down runs of one yard or less. The Vols also had two first down penalties, including the crucial intentional grounding call that changed the game. This is exactly the same story from the Georgia Dome, where the Vols had seven first down runs for no gain or negative yardage and two false starts on first down. Tyler Bray is good enough to get us out of trouble...but hey, how about getting into a little less trouble for a change?
3. Defensive fundamentals
How many of us hope that the solution to Tennessee's defensive problems is line up right + don't miss tackles = success? If the Vols continue on their two interceptions per game pace, great, but I don't expect Aaron Murray to be generous. If the Vols can somehow find a way to get pressure on the quarterback for the first time in five years, again, great, but I think we stopped holding our breath on that one a while ago.
But what we should expect from a defense learning the 3-4 is that they get better every week at the fundamental aspects. Tennessee can't continue to give up big plays simply because they're in the wrong spot, because Georgia has the talent to abuse us. And if Sal Sunseri continues to dial up aggression, the Vols h-a-v-e to make tackles in space. 20 yard plays are bad, but when they turn into 40+ yard plays because of missed tackles, you get the end of the Florida game, and I think we'd all like to move on from that.
4. New wrinkles that actually work
Our offense is good enough at what it does - and this includes the Rajion Neal we saw against Akron - to not need the gimmicky stuff unless it is a clear benefit. We all get excited about Devrin Young, Pig Howard, and A.J. Johnson in the wildcat. They're great in theory. But if they're not great in practice, we're wasting downs.
Devrin Young has 61 yards of total offense and 59 of them were against Georgia State. A.J. Johnson got a huge touchdown against the Gators but couldn't convert against Akron. And I don't think any of us know what Pig Howard can do...and I'm not sure Saturday is the time to find out.
Don't get cute just for the sake of being cute. That was a game for Dooley's first two teams when you needed cute to make up for a lack of overall everything. This offense doesn't need cute. Against Georgia, it needs maximum productivity.
5. I'm going to keep putting Adversity here until we prove we can handle it.
Are we done doing things the hard way and ready to do things the fun way?
Is Georgia truly among the national elite? Or are Derek Dooley and Tennessee finally ready to win one that matters?
Saturday, 3:30, between the hedges.