- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt doesn’t attempt to hide his love of the passing game, so Georgia’s coach looks on with envy at the aerial weapons Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has at his disposal.
The Volunteers (3-1, 0-1 SEC) -- who visit Richt’s Georgia club (4-0, 2-0) on Saturday afternoon -- have one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks in Tyler Bray, some of the most explosive receivers in Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers, and one of the most productive tight ends in Mychal Rivera. And that volume of talent lets Richt know what he’d do if here were Dooley.
“If I had those receivers and that quarterback, I’d have a hard time trying to stay balanced,” Richt said. “I like throwing the ball. ... I don’t know if I would sit there and say, ‘Gosh, I’ve got to be totally balanced.’ ”
Tennessee probably presents the greatest offensive challenge that Georgia has faced to this point, ranking second in the SEC in total offense with 513.8 yards per game -- trailing only Georgia’s 530 ypg. The bulk of that yardage has come through the air, as the Vols are first in the league and eighth nationally in passing offense at 341.2 yards per game.
The trigger man, Bray, is tied for first nationally with 12 touchdown passes and is ninth with 325.2 passing yards per game. But he has struggled at times against the blitz -- he completed just 23 percent of his passes when Florida brought five or more rushers in the Vols’ lone loss -- and Georgia knows it must pressure and confuse Bray to effectively defend the pass.
“Some of the errors that he’s made recently had to do with him not seeing guys dropping out of coverage,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “We are going to have to bait him into throwing some passes sometimes. If we can change it up while keeping sound coverage and don’t give up any big plays, then I think we’ll have a good shot at limiting them through the air.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Bray has elite receiving weapons at his disposal in Hunter, whom ESPN expert Mel Kiper Jr. lists as the top wideout and No. 8 overall prospect for the 2013 NFL draft, and Patterson, a junior college transfer whom Georgia pursued heavily on the recruiting trail.
Hunter (30 catches, 410 yards, four touchdowns) is second in the SEC and 13th nationally with an average of 102.5 receiving yards per game, while Patterson (19-259, 2 TDs) is 11th in the league at 64.8 ypg. And deep-ball threat Rogers (8-198, 1 TD) and Rivera (11-173, 2 TDs) supplement the stars’ production with solid contributions of their own.
The group will present a major challenge to a Georgia defense that has been susceptible to the big play this season. The Bulldogs are sixth in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 207.8 yards per game, and have already surrendered 15 plays that covered 25 yards or more.
However, the Bulldogs should have back All-America safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree from suspension this week, which will put their defense at full strength for the first time this season.
Rambo’s return, in particular, would allow senior Sanders Commings to move from safety back to cornerback and bolster a secondary that relied heavily on senior Branden Smith, sophomore Damian Swann and converted receiver Malcolm Mitchell in the first four games.
There is no better time for Georgia’s secondary to return to full strength, and Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham thinks the reunited group will give his defense its best chance to contain the Vols’ passing game.
“I think the matchup’s fine,” Grantham said. “They’ve got some good wideouts, we’ve got some good corners. We’ve just got to understand routes, alignments, what can happen to you and be ready to play. I think we’ll be fine in that matchup.”