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Tennessee vs Georgia: The Five Biggest Questions For The Vols

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A look at what needs to happen for Tennessee to get a victory in Neyland on Saturday.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia
The Vols have their biggest game of the season on Saturday.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

After a very underwhelming performance against UMass last weekend the Vols were unable to answer a few lingering questions they had coming into the game.

While they were able to finally find a pass rush, they underperformed in just about every other area other than the running game. That has to change this weekend against Georgia.

Tennessee has quite a few questions to answer this weekend if they want to beat Georgia for the third season in a row.

Can The Offensive Line Get It Together?

Starting center Jashon Robertson was out last week with concussion-like symptoms and his status for this week's game is unknown. To say the Vols struggled on the line without him would be an understatement - evidenced by the feat of Butch Jones yanking multiple linemen out of the lineup last week.

The line has looked both good and bad during moments throughout the season, but this week is a whole different story. The Bulldog defense has vastly improved since last season and they are a legit unit.

Georgia will obviously key in on running back John Kelly, but whether they will be effective in stopping him remains to be seen. Kelly had a huge day against a stout Florida defense, bouncing off would-be tacklers and making opponents miss in the open field - something that will be hard to do this week against an extremely fast front seven.

Outback Bowl - Northwestern v Tennessee
The Vols really need Jashon Robertson to play this weekend.
Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Tennessee gained over 125 yards against Georgia on the ground last season, but averaged right around three yards per carry. They will need a lot more efficient production this weekend.

The running game will also need help from the passing game. Oddly enough, UT's passing game is ranked ahead of the running game, but the Vols will need bigger results from their passing game this weekend.

Tennessee will have to find a way to block both Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, arguably Georgia's two best pass rushers. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart will surely have some exotic blitzes dialed up to put the pressure on Quinten Dormady.

The Vols have the talent and experience up front to make a difference but have not lived up to their potential in the last two seasons. Hopefully that will change on Saturday.

**Note: Since this was published, Butch Jones confirmed that Jashon Robertson will play this weekend.**

Can The Players Drown Out The Noise?

All week long many fans and the media have labeled this as Butch Jones's "do-or-die" game. A popular theory is that if he does not win this game then he will be fired during the following bye week.

The speculation seems to have taken a toll on Jones to the point where he went on a two-minute rant talking about the "overwhelming negativity", "fake news", and the overall negative connotation that the local media has placed on the program over the past couple of weeks during his latest press conference.

In usual fashion, Jones made matters worse with his rant. And the oddest part about the rant was the fact that the journalists who apparently pissed him off were just doing their jobs and asking about a report they heard concerning an injury to a certain player.

They weren't insinuating. They weren't speculating. And they damn sure weren't trying to weave a narrative.

The players had to have seen Jones's press conference and it will be interesting to see how his reaction trickles down. Will they get frustrated when things get tough or will they back their coach like he publicly backed them?

In the past, the players have come to Jones's defense and have performed well when needed most, ala the Georgia game in 2015.

But something seems different about this year's team. There aren't many playmaking seniors on the team, so one has to wonder if the lack of leadership will have a negative effect on how this team pushes through the tough moments.

Regardless, we will know on Saturday how tough the program's skin really is. And speaking of noise....

Will The Crowd Be A True Difference Maker?

Usually in any scenario this would be a given yes and there would be no question needed. But UT's recent performances and Jones's growing war with the media and fan base had Neyland Stadium almost empty after halftime last week.

Even against lesser opponents, Neyland has always been close to full - if not at full capacity throughout most of the games. A lot of fans used last week's walkout as a message to show their disappointment with the lack of progress that UT has made over the past few games.

Tennessee will need their fans out in full force this weekend.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

While the fans certainly have good reason to be disappointed, there is also plenty of reason to still support the players and program despite who is in charge.

So what happens if Tennessee gets down 24-3 in the first half like they did in 2015? Will most of the crowd walk out or will they stay? UT has already shown the ability to come back in games, but will the crowd have the patience to stick around and find out?

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart stated in a press conference earlier this week that over half of Georgia's team has never played in Neyland Stadium. That could provide the Vols with a huge advantage if used correctly.

Vols fans are one of the most dedicated fan bases in the country, but they can also be very fickle. UT will need every single one of them to show up and stick it out if they want to win on Saturday.

Can The Defense Put Together A Complete Game?

We have seen the Vols pass rush come to life over the past couple of weeks and their secondary has played pretty well despite the gut-wrenching touchdown allowed to Florida two weeks ago.

Now, Tennessee needs to get the run defense on track in order to notch a huge win this weekend.

The struggles defending the run have dated back to last season and last week the Vols allowed almost 150 yards to arguably the worst team in the nation when it comes to running the ball.

Even without running back Nick Chubb last season the Vols still couldn't stop back ups Sony Michel and Brian Herrien. They both combined for around 165 yards on 30 carries and were the main reason Georgia led 30-27 with under a minute to play.

Kentucky v Georgia
Sony Michel is an excellent all-purpose back and the Vols will have their hands full with him.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Georgia does have a freshman quarterback starting in Jake Fromm, so the recipe is there for Bob Shoop to make the freshman's life hell and shut down the running game.

Fans and alumni everywhere are begging for just one whole performance from the defense to at least give them some hope that they won't have to rely on a Jekyll-and-Hyde type offense to win them games.

What Will The Vols Do At Tight End?

This may not seem like a big issue, but when you are down your top three players at any position - I don't care if it's at punter - then you need to find an answer fast.

Tennessee lost third-string tight end Eli Wolf during the Indiana State game to a sprained ankle and lost starter Ethan Wolf last week during the fourth quarter against UMass.

Oh and they also lost backup Jakob Johnson last week as well.

That leaves the Vols with fourth-stringer Austin Pope and freshman LaTrell Bumphus at the position. Both players have combined for just two career catches in their limited time on Rocky Top.

Losing Ethan Wolf could mean more than it appears on the surface if he doesn't play Saturday.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Vols like to run a lot of two tight sets, with the senior Wolf and Johnson as the blocking ends of the formation. How these injuries will affect certain packages remains to be seen in the long run, but if Saturday gives any type of indication, it may be a bigger factor than anticipated.

Fortunately Jones is optimistic that both Wolf and Johnson will be available for this weekend's game, which would be a huge boost of good news for a team in desperate need of some - whether it be fake or real.

**Note: Since this was published, Butch Jones confirmed that Jakob Johnson will miss this weekend's game, but did not specify Wolf's status.**