In our pick 'em this week, one-third of our community is picking the Vols to win this game. In Chris's advanced stats preview, he picked the Vols to lose but cover. In Joel's keys to victory, he picked the Vols to lose but cover. So I'm more than happy to be the guy that makes the argument for a Tennessee victory.
The perception of this Tennessee team has changed a great deal since August, sparked by a blowout of Utah State and a competitive loss at #4 Oklahoma. What's changed from two weeks ago also has a great deal to do with perception, because the realities in Norman were clear: Tennessee's offensive line plays as inexperienced as it actually is, and against an elite defense the Vols will have a very difficult time keeping Justin Worley upright. The Vols may be a little better up front than they were two weeks ago, but they will still be starting two freshmen at right guard and right tackle and another one at tight end.
But before Oklahoma, the perception was this Tennessee team was still too young and probably another recruiting class away from playing with the big boys. Coming out of Norman with a 34-10 loss that included a pair of end zone interceptions in the second half, literally every Tennessee fan I have come across in the last two weeks has been encouraged by what they saw. Yes, the obvious issues on the offensive line are there. But the Tennessee defense was once again sensational on third down, slowed down Oklahoma's run game, and gave the Vols a chance to be in the game by playing the same steady football we've seen from them all year. And Tennessee finally found success running the ball in the second half behind Jalen Hurd's 14 carries for 97 yards.
What also happened two weeks ago is a Georgia team considered to be a playoff contender went to South Carolina and lost 38-35, giving up 447 yards to the Gamecocks along the way. The four teams picked ahead of Tennessee in the SEC East have all lost already, three of them in-conference. Two weeks ago we were talking about this young team just surviving on the road against two of the best teams in college football. Today, we're talking about Tennessee having a chance to win and make a statement in the SEC East.
We've said before all you can ask for from these baby Vols is the ability to compete. After Oklahoma, with so much football still in front of them, I think you can feel good about their chances to do just that the rest of the way home. They won't win them all, but they will allow you to turn on the TV or sit down in your seat and wonder. And it may take a little imagination, but the Vols could win this game. A little imagination never hurt anybody.
For all the talk and all the truth about the talent gap between the Vols and the better teams in this conference, Tennessee and Georgia have played three consecutive one possession games. Nevermind what all of us think. The players in Tennessee's locker room know they were that close last year, and they know they're better this year.
Georgia is better simply because they have Todd Gurley in uniform this time, and make no mistake: if the Vols don't finish tackles, Georgia will run away with this. The Dawgs' top three backs all average at least 9.5 yards per carry, which is bolstered by playing a lifeless Troy team last week but still very impressive. A.J. Johnson and the Tennessee defense have to be as good as we all hope they are to put the game on Hutson Mason's shoulders.
But if they slow down the ground game just enough to get it to Mason's shoulders, the Vol defense could be good enough to take advantage. I think you trust Cameron Sutton in one-on-one situations against Georgia's pass game. I think this secondary is good enough to be trusted; the Vols are 38th nationally in yards per attempt allowed and have faced at least what we thought were three pretty good quarterbacks.
Justin Worley and a depleted wide receiver corps could still be good enough to take advantage of Georgia's secondary woes. The Dawgs are 56th nationally in yards per attempt allowed despite playing Troy and Clemson's quarterback mess. Last year Tennessee put 404 yards of offense on Georgia. Tennessee's offensive line is once again the biggest difference there from year to year, but they may not face a better defense than Oklahoma all season. Can Worley outplay Mason? Can Bajakian call a better game than Bobo?
Can Tennessee's defense hold the line?
There are still lots of if's in here. But the if's are getting fewer. And they require less imagination every week.
This Tennessee team is chasing something good, and they're going to get there. One whiff of competitiveness in Oklahoma and now we're all starving for the next breakthrough. It may not come in Athens on Saturday. But the thing about being competitive every week is that one of these weeks, it will. And for the veterans on this team, the ones who have been better than most believed on a team with so many celebrated freshmen, the guys who gave their all for Tennessee one year ago and lost in cruel fashion in overtime? The seniors, like Worley and A.J., who have spent most of their careers being disappointed in moments like this one? There would be no better time to arrive than Saturday at noon between the hedges.
Tennessee will go to Athens believing it can win. If the offense takes advantage of opportunities instead of giving them away and the defense plays the way it's played so far this year? I think they're going to have a real chance to do just that.