Will Shelton - Pig Howard
All of a sudden you're really glad those "We don't even need him, we're so deep at receiver" conversations didn't end up that way over the summer. Last year Pig Howard led the Vols in receptions but had the fewest yards per catch of any wide receiver on the team. So far this year it's been more of the same: Pig trails Marquez North by a single catch for the team lead, but is just fourth on the team in receiving yards and again last among receivers in yards per catch. He's not the vertical threat and some of the screen action the Vols have tried to involve him in has been blown up.
But you look around now and see Von Pearson still out and Josh Smith very questionable for Saturday, and it's starting to look a lot like last year out there. That probably means even more involvement for Howard in the pass game; Ethan Wolf and Josh Malone are very important this week to give the Vols an extra dimension, but getting something more from such a reliable target is also a must for the Vols to entertain success offensively.
Something more is exactly what we got from him in this matchup last year, with his four catches going for 70 yards on top of six carries for 46 yards. He was a huge reason why Tennessee was in that game until the very end, and as we all know, his fingertips were on the football when the game turned so cruel. There is no one better I can think of to make a difference for Tennessee this Saturday in Athens.
Incipient_Senescence - Josh Malone
Against Oklahoma, I said we needed a second major threat at WR to keep the defense from keying on Marquez North. And while Josh Smith had a nice touchdown catch, that didn't really happen. Georgia's secondary is worse than Oklahoma's, so the task may be a bit easier, but the task hasn't changed. Have a breakout performance from another receiver, then enjoy watching the secondary try to deal with them both. Von Pearson, if healthy, would be the prime candidate, but he isn't. Josh Smith is injured too. Jason Croom. . . I don't want to talk about Jason Croom. So it's Josh Malone's time to shine. We've been hearing about his improved practice habits, and everyone knows about his talent. It's time to see it on game day.
Joel Hollingsworth - A.J. Johnson
Because Todd Gurley. Tennessee's run defense is much improved, but Georgia's rushing offense is elite. Gurley v. A.J. Johnson is Beast v. Beast, so I'm looking at these two as musk ox ramming heads to see who's boss. Not only that, but if Gurley wins that battle and starts running all over the Vols, it will be up to A.J. to keep his and everyone else's heads in the game. The end.
Kid Bourbon - Derek Barnett
The problem with relying on linebackers to put the kibosh on the forward momentum of a player like Todd Gurley is that, well, it could be too late at that point. When Gurley gets into the second level there's a strong to quite strong chance that the bad guys are gonna be moving the sticks, and a very real chance he cribs it.
That doesn't mean he's unstoppable. In fact, I submit that stopping even the best of backs is easy breezy: you just gotta get to them early. And if we're winning the line of scrimmage and getting to the ballcarrier early, Derek Barnett is involved. The guy is the real deal. Against Oklahoma we saw him sniff out run plays before the running back had a head of steam and enough space to get nifty.* We're going to need to see a lot more of that from him on Saturday to keep #3 bottled up. And without the real threat of a pass -- "oh, I think he's a terrific kid too, Ms. Mason" -- our young stud DE will have plenty of opportunities to fabricate carnage.
*Two season ago, these might have been "Holy Sunseri!" plays.
Chris Pendley - Jalen Hurd
Hey Jalen! You just ripped off two huge fourth quarter runs against Oklahoma! What do you have this time around? Before answering, consider this: your OL will be fresher than they were against Oklahoma, as will you--thank you, bye week--and this is your first SEC game. Consistency will be the key; while Justin Worley might be able to play Hutson Mason to a draw (doesn't that give you the utmost of confidence?), your counterpart is the best RB Tennessee's faced this season. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: steal that title.
Hunter Turner - Cam Sutton
We ain't winning this game without decisively winning the turnover battle. AJ Johnson and the rest of the front seven will have some chances to cause fumbles in the run game, but Todd Gurley and the rest of Georgia's running backs are too good at running through arm tackles for the Vols to be swiping wildly at the football. That means Tennessee's best opportunity for a game-changing and possibly season-altering play will come off the fingertips of Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason. Through three games, Mason has been competent but not explosive, relying mostly on safe throws to receivers in single coverage and running backs against underneath coverage. If the Vols focus on taking away the Bulldogs' run game (and I expect they will), offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will try to make Tennessee pay by throwing over the top. That job will be more difficult this week without injured receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, with the Bulldogs expected to rely on steady but unremarkable seniors Michael Bennett, Chris Conley, and explosive freshman slotback Isaiah McKenzie.
Cam Sutton is better than every wide receiver on Georgia's roster, and most definitely better than any wide receiver he will actually face. In order for Tennessee to win this game, he needs to be at his most dominant: shutting down the Bulldogs' passing game, sticking his nose in against the run, and taking any poor throws that he has a shot at back the other way for six. If Sutton dances between the hedges, so will Butch Jones and the rest of the Vols.