More than a few Tennessee fans have expressed surprise that Georgia is only a field goal favorite to beat Tennessee on Saturday.
They shouldn’t be.
On paper, these two teams appear to be fairly evenly matched.
You could make an argument that Georgia is the toughest team the Vols have faced thus far. But you could also make an argument that Georgia’s one-dimensional offense isn’t as good as Oklahoma’s or Arkansas’s, and the Dawgs’ defense certainly isn’t as good as Florida’s.
Regardless of how you spin it, Saturday’s game in Knoxville (3:30 p.m., CBS) is a game Butch Jones and his Tennessee team desperately need to win. The Vols are suddenly reeling after back-to-back losses to Florida and Arkansas, and the vultures appear to be circling in Knoxville.
The good news for Tennessee is that the Vols typically play Georgia close. That has been true since Mark Richt arrived in Athens, and it seems to hold true no matter who is coaching Tennessee.
As for Jones, he has coached two of his best games in Knoxville against the Bulldogs. Tennessee lost both of them, but they were tight games against heavily-favored Georgia teams.
Last season, No. 12 Georgia needed a fumble in the end zone and a long touchdown run in the fourth quarter to escape with a 35-32 win over Tennessee. The previous season, the sixth-ranked Bulldogs were mere inches away from losing to the Vols. Georgia came from behind in the fourth quarter to force overtime, where it won on a field goal, 34-31. But that was only after Tennessee’s Pig Howard fumbled as he dove into the end zone. Replay revealed that the ball began to wiggle from his grasp only inches before crossing the chalk. Four more inches and Tennessee likely would have won the game.
In Derek Dooley’s last season, meanwhile, Tyler Bray and the most explosive offense the Vols have had in the past seven seasons narrowly lost to No. 5 Georgia in Athens, 51-44.
The 2011 meeting in Knoxville was also close, a 20-12 Georgia win.
In 2009, Tennessee upset Georgia 45-19 during Lane Kiffin’s lone season in Knoxville. Tennessee also upset Georgia in 2007, 35-14.
In addition, Richt is usually good for at least one loss a year that his team probably should have won — which is why some fans in Athens seem to perennially call for his termination. That one game for 2015 may well have been last week’s game against Alabama. That Georgia lost wasn’t surprising, but the fashion in which they lost — completely dominated out of the gates by a Crimson Tide team that rolled into Athens as underdogs — certainly was. Then again, maybe Alabama was just that good, and maybe Richt’s Dawgs lay another egg in Knoxville this week.
A couple of things have to happen for Tennessee to have a chance. One is the Vols’ offense must find a way to score points. Tennessee looked terrible against Arkansas last week. After an 89-yard touchdown drive on their first possession, the Vols didn’t score another touchdown all night against an Arkansas defense that statistically is the third-worst in the SEC.
Tennessee will also have to slow down Nick Chubb and Georgia’s powerful rushing attack.
We’ll find out on Saturday whether either of those things can happen. Georgia’s defense isn’t as terrible as Arkansas’, but it isn’t exactly a steel curtain, either. And while Chubb and the Dawgs can certainly move the ball on the ground, Georgia isn’t as two-dimensional as Arkansas; the Dawgs’ passing game is not very good.
So as this week began, I felt confident that Tennessee stood a good chance of beating Georgia.
Then came the rumors of Butch Jones punching offensive lineman Mack Crowder, along with a number of other rumors, and even more injuries for Tennessee . . . along with news that Pig Howard, the Vols’ leading receiver a year ago, has been kicked off the team.
There appears to be nothing to the Jones-Crowder rumor — not to the degree it might have initially seemed, anyway — but the combination of all the things swirling in Knoxville this week creates quite a formidable mental hurdle for Tennessee’s players to clear.
The Vols’ mental state will determine whether Tennessee has a chance against Georgia. If Butch Jones can rally his troops, and their state of mind is solid, Tennessee will play the Bulldogs close, with an opportunity to win the game in the fourth quarter. If, on the other hand, the game winds up being lopsided in Georgia’s favor, it will be a sign that Tennessee has major problems. It will indicate that the team’s mental state is fragile. Worse, it could be an indication that this team has phoned it in, which could mean that a losing record and bowl ineligibility are on the horizon — which is just about the worst case scenario you can imagine for a third-year head coach who is trying mightily to prove his worth to a fan base that is frustrated to the max.
A win over Georgia won’t make Butch Jones’ critics completely go away; only a win over Alabama will accomplish that. But a win over Georgia would certainly serve to stop the bleeding for a while, and Butch Jones is in bad need of a bandaid at this point.