One of the toughest things about college football in a major conference is the wear and tear. As Boise State, Utah, and TCU showed with some fantastic runs from small conferences in the 2000s, a team without the depth of a major conference roster can go toe-to-toe with the big boys for a game, but asking them to do it week after week through the grind of a conference like the SEC is another thing entirely. That kind of depth can be built, but it takes time. And even when you have it, minor knocks and major injuries still take their toll.
For the past half-decade, the most physical team in the SEC has been the Alabama Crimson Tide. Their offensive lines are always some of the biggest and most powerful in the conference, and they usually have at least two all-SEC talents in the backfield waiting to bludgeon the defense to death. As such, it is easy to conclude that playing the Tide will have an outsized physical effect--that Alabama's opponents will be more likely to suffer from fatigue or injury issues in the following game.
To my knowledge, the Alabama Effect has not been documented statistically, but there is plenty of reason to think that playing a physical team--especially at the end of a long stretch without a bye--poses a special challenge, both that week and the following week. And that special challenge is one that will, interestingly enough, face both the Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs when they meet in Neyland Stadium on October 10. Georgia will be coming off a home date against the Tide on October 3. The Vols? They will be playing the successor to Alabama's title of "Most Physical SEC Offense": the Arkansas Razorbacks. The Hogs, like the Tide standard, have a huge, powerful offensive line. And like Alabama, Arkansas has a fantastic running back tandem. Auburn aside, Alabama and Arkansas are the most likely teams in the SEC to wear down their opponents with power football, and Alabama and Arkansas will have a chance to do that to the Vols and Bulldogs on October 3.
So when Tennessee and Georgia play on October 10, both coming off five straight games without a bye, both coming off one of the most physical offenses on their schedule, and both possessing one of the best running backs in the SEC, it's not a stretch to say that the depth on the defensive front seven will be one of the biggest factors in deciding the outcome. And in the defensive front seven, both teams have questions. Georgia's linebacking corps is one of the most talented in the SEC, but they lost all three starters from a defensive line that struggled with depth last season, hemorrhaging yards on the ground to Florida (418 on 60 carries) and Georgia Tech (399 on 70 carries) late in the season. The Bulldogs do have several seniors ready to step into starting roles, and they do get help in the form of five-star defensive tackle Trent Thompson--who 247 rated higher than Vols' star recruit Kahlil McKenzie--but going into the season, it's hard to count on their defensive front.
Tennessee, however, has similar questions. They lost just two players from last year's starting front seven, but the 2014 defense did have serious depth issues, manifesting itself in a fourth quarter meltdown against Todd Gurley's Bulldogs and one of the worst red zone defenses in the country. And one of the two players they lost was middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, who tied for the team lead in total tackles despite missing the last three games of the season. But the Vols had one of the best defensive line recruiting classes in recent memory, and they have reason to believe that defensive line depth will not be a problem. Everyone returns at the end position, and with the emergence of RS sophomore Kendall Vickers and the addition of the five-star McKenzie and near-five-star Shy Tuttle, the Vols should be able to more than make up for the loss of Jordan Williams at tackle.
But on the second level, the question remains for Tennessee: who will replace A.J. Johnson in the middle? Darrin Kirkland Jr. is a highly-touted recruit, but he's just a freshman and missed spring ball with injury. Dillon Bates, Gavin Bryant, and Kenny Bynum tried their hand at the position in the spring, but none of them were able to take charge. The Vols hope that Kirkland will contribute immediately and that a gaggle of sophomores like Bates, Bryant, Elliott Berry, and Cortez McDowell will provide quality snaps, but the fact remains that Jalen Reeves-Maybin is the only sure thing in the bunch. Because the Vols lacked depth last season, Reeves-Maybin was forced to play far too many snaps, game after game, and he might have to do it again.
Georgia has the team to take advantage of these questions. Their offensive line projects to be at or near the top of the conference, and running back Nick Chubb is arguably the best running back in a league full of fantastic running backs. If Reeves-Maybin is still playing 90 snaps a game in 2015, and the Vols don't find a quality player in the middle, it's hard not to see Tennessee struggle with consecutive games against Arkansas and Georgia, no matter how good their defensive line is.
Butch Jones has brought two recruiting classes full of quality defensive talent to Knoxville, but it will be up to the young players on the Tennessee defense to prove they can take the pounding in the SEC. The Vols will face three SEC opponents in a row (and six total opponents, including Oklahoma and Florida in addition to Arkansas and Georgia) before their bye. Georgia is the last on the list, and if the depth is not drastically better than last year, it will be tough for Tennessee to win.
On the flip side, the Vols will have an opportunity to take advantage of a Georgia team that has also played six straight games and will be coming off one of their biggest games of the season: a home showdown against a national powerhouse, most likely with an undefeated record on the line. Tennessee may also be better positioned to keep the opposing defense off-balance, with what look like advantages over Georgia at quarterback and receiver. So if the Vols can take steps forward on their much-maligned offensive line, and if what looks on paper like an excellent passing attack prevents Georgia from stacking the box, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara could be set for a big day against the Bulldogs defense.