In an important game week when there's been more off-the-field chatter than most I can remember, it's this on-the-field question that will be most important in determining Tennessee's chances to turn their season around. Because if the answer is no, a Georgia team we already know can run the ball will have little to slow them down in sending Tennessee to a 2-4 start and an excruciatingly long off week.
As Joel mentioned in his preview yesterday, when we asked Dawg Sports' Jeremy Attaway about the dominant Greyson Lambert narrative on our podcast, he agreed: Georgia's quarterback is excellent against bad defenses, and really struggles against good defenses.
By excellent, we mean this: in games against Louisiana-Monroe, South Carolina, and Southern, Lambert is 41 of 47 passing (87.2%) for 617 yards (13.1 YPA!), with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. He did one better than Tee Martin against South Carolina, and the Dawgs scored 51, 52, and 48 points in those three games.
But against Vanderbilt, he was 11 of 21 (52.4%) for 116 yards (5.5 YPA). And last week against Alabama, Lambert was 10 of 24 (41.7%) for 86 yards (3.6 YPA) and an interception. ULM and South Carolina rank 65th and 81st in yards per attempt allowed this year. Alabama and Vanderbilt are 7th and 27th.
Last year playing at Virginia, Lambert had fewer extremes but similar issues. Against North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Florida State (all ranking between 84-121 in YPA allowed last year) and Richmond, Lambert was 72 of 122 (59.0%) with 204.8 yards on average (6.7 YPA) and seven touchdowns against five interceptions. Against UCLA, Louisville, BYU, Miami, and Virginia Tech (all ranking between 17-38 in YPA allowed last year) Lambert was 82 of 139 (58.9%) with 163.8 yards on average (5.9 YPA) and just three touchdowns against six interceptions.
Georgia has done a great job building his confidence against poor defenses with high percentage throws, which come much easier when defenses have to worry about Nick Chubb's 8.2 yards per carry. So is Tennessee a good enough defense to bring out the worst in Lambert?
Injuries to Curt Maggitt and Rashaan Gaulden have lowered the ceiling on this Tennessee defense, which has had a different narrative coming out of every FBS game this year. After Bowling Green we couldn't stop a simple go route. Then the Vol D held Oklahoma to four yards per play but fell victim to fatigue and penalties at the end of the game. It should be noted Oklahoma is currently 15th nationally in yards per play after going off against everyone else on their schedule.
That point would be a little more comforting if not for Florida on fourth down. When the Vols went up 27-14 on Florida with nine minutes to go, the Gators' only points had come off of one long run and one short field. Nine minutes later Tennessee's defense had seen the game slip away on more fourth downs and one more back-breaking play.
And then last week, against a team probably more built to beat them than any other on the schedule, Tennessee was gashed for 6.7 yards per play and 275 yards on the ground by Arkansas. And it was the big play that killed the Vols through the air: Brandon Allen was only 11 of 24, but threw for 219 yards (9.1 YPA, 19.9 YPC).
Big plays have been a factor in every game except Oklahoma. Bowling Green lit up the secondary, Florida landed critical blows early and late, and Arkansas did the same throughout. As a result the Vols are 113th nationally in plays of 30+ yards allowed with 14 in five games. And without Maggitt Tennessee has just eight sacks in five games, 91st nationally in sacks per game.
In long stretches, Tennessee has been very good defensively. And in short bursts and much of the Arkansas game between the 20s, Tennessee has been very poor defensively. What will it be this week? If Tennessee can slow Chubb and Georgia's run game enough (and it would help to play from ahead again), can they prevent Lambert from picking them apart through the air? The Dawgs have surrendered just one sack per game this year, so I wouldn't expect Tennessee to change much of their fortunes there this week. But can they force Lambert into bad decisions and bad throws, either with pressure or coverage? And when Lambert does land passes, can their tackling be significantly better than we saw against Arkansas?
There has been much weeping and gnashing of teeth over the play and structure of Tennessee's offense. But I think this week it's Tennessee's defense, and their ability to beat or get beat by Greyson Lambert, that will make the greatest contribution to the outcome.