- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
TENNESSEE AT NO. 5 GEORGIA
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Sanford Stadium/Athens, Ga.
Records: Georgia 4-0 (2-0 SEC), Tennessee 3-1 (0-1)
Last week: Georgia blasted Vanderbilt 48-3. Tennessee scored the final 17 points in the fourth quarter to pull away from Akron and win 47-26.
What’s the Story? As was the case last season when Georgia visited Neyland Stadium, the Bulldogs know that the key to beating Tennessee is containing the Volunteers’ strong passing game. The Bulldogs surrendered 290 passing yards to the Vols last season, but forced them to completely rely on the pass by holding them to minus-21 rushing yards. Tennessee is an improved team, however, and is running the ball more effectively this season. Georgia will no doubt try to make them one-dimensional again -- and if it can, its chances of notching a third consecutive win against Tennessee will improve greatly.
1. Keep it clean: Georgia generated the sixth-most turnovers in the country last season (32), but has only six takeaways this season. Meanwhile, Tennessee is tied for the SEC lead with eight interceptions. Georgia has the ability to win comfortably, but it can't make mistakes that create easy scoring opportunities for the Vols. Also keep an eye on special teams, where both teams have had some surprising issues converting extra points.
2. Keep on running: Tennessee has struggled to defend the run effectively in its first four games, ranking 11th in the SEC by allowing 164.2 rushing yards per game and ranking second-to-last in yards per attempt at 4.6. Georgia’s improved rushing attack presents a tough matchup for the Vols, with true freshmen Todd Gurley (the SEC’s leading rusher at 101.5 yards per game) and Keith Marshall (14th at 66 ypg) forming a dynamic 1-2 punch.
3. Forcing Bray mistakes: Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray is one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks, but he is also prone to making mistakes under pressure. He threw two touchdowns and two interceptions in the Vols’ lone loss, a 37-20 defeat against a tough defensive Florida team, and had an interception returned for a touchdown last week against Akron. Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will unquestionably try to confuse Bray with unusual blitz and coverage schemes in hopes that he will make a few mistakes.
Players to watch:
1. Alec Ogletree/Bacarri Rambo: Georgia’s star free safety and inside linebacker are expected to return from four-game suspensions, although the Bulldogs’ coaching staff has not confirmed they will be available against Tennessee. The two ranked among Georgia’s top defensive players last year -- Rambo, in fact, was a first-team All-American after leading the SEC with eight interceptions -- so the defense should improve now that it’s back to full strength.
2. Marlon Brown: Vols fans haven’t forgiven Memphis native Brown for picking Georgia over his home-state program on signing day 2009. But he’s never made them pay in previous meetings, totaling three career catches for 21 yards against the Vols so far. Now a senior, Brown is finally living up to the five-star billing he carried into college and has been one of the Bulldogs’ most effective receivers with an average of 88 receiving yards (264 total) and three touchdowns in three games.
3. Jarvis Jones: Jones should probably occupy a permanent spot in one of these three slots as the Bulldogs are a completely different team when he’s on the field. The junior outside linebacker has 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss in just three games and is capable of giving opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles nightmares with his speed and array of pass-rush moves. If Georgia manages to pressure Bray, Jones will probably be one of the leading contributors.
1. Justin Hunter: Tennessee has no shortage of NFL-caliber offensive talent, but the Vols’ biggest weapon is receiver Hunter. ESPN expert Mel Kiper ranks Hunter as the top receiver and No. 8 overall prospect for the 2013 NFL draft, and the 6-foot-4, 200-pound wideout ranks sixth nationally in receiving yards with 410 after missing most of last season with a torn ACL.
2. Bray: When Bray is on, he is among the nation’s most impressive pure passers. The 6-6 junior is tied for first nationally with 12 touchdown passes and is second in the SEC with an average of 325.2 passing yards per game. If Georgia fails to generate consistent pressure on Bray, he and his bevy of talented receivers can make it a long evening for the Bulldogs’ secondary.
3. A.J. Johnson: The Georgia native has been impressive in a variety of roles, but his most important duty is anchoring the middle of the Vols’ new 3-4 defense. He leads the team and is tied for sixth in the SEC with nine tackles per game (27 in three games).
Georgia’s secondary vs. Tennessee’s passing attack
Tennessee does not have many obvious advantages entering this game, but Hunter and fellow wideouts Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers -- plus tight end Mychal Rivera -- pose a major threat to a Georgia secondary that has surrendered its share of big plays thus far. Georgia cornerbacks Branden Smith, Sanders Commings and Damian Swann will be under a great deal of pressure on Saturday.
By the numbers
1. 2004. Tennessee is one of the most successful college football programs in history, but has still not returned to the lofty status it occupied in the 1990s and 2000s under Phil Fulmer. The Vols are searching for their first win against a top-five team since beating No. 4 LSU on Sept. 26, 2004. Tennessee also hasn’t beaten a top-10 team since beating No. 10 Georgia in 2006 or a ranked team since taking out No. 21 South Carolina in 2009.
2. 10-9-1. Georgia comes into Saturday’s game as a two-touchdown favorite, but series history reminds us that Tennessee has been known to take the wind out of the Bulldogs’ sails. Two games in particular come to mind, with Tennessee’s wins in 2004 and 2007 not only costing Georgia a pair of SEC East titles, but also preventing them from achieving even loftier goals. The Vols actually have a winning all-time record at Sanford Stadium: 10-9-1, but have not won in Athens since 2006.
3. 40-plus. Tennessee surrendered 37 points to Florida and 26 points last week to Akron, so Georgia’s school-record streak of four consecutive games with 40 points or more could reach five on Saturday. The Bulldogs lead the SEC with averages of 530 yards and 47.5 points per game, which is a mighty test for a Tennessee defense that is still adjusting to coordinator Sal Sunseri’s new 3-4 scheme.
On deck: Next Saturday, Georgia visits No. 6 South Carolina (4-0, 2-0), which should still be undefeated after visiting hapless Kentucky this weekend. College football pundits before the season picked the Georgia-South Carolina as the game that might determine the SEC East winner, and that still looks to be a strong possibility as we’re barely a week away from kickoff in Columbia.