What I said at the time: The Big Orange emperor was declared to be, if not completely naked, then somewhat scantily clad.
Lost in the what-the-hell-just-happened second-guessing over the Dawgs’ blowout loss to UT last year was the fact that they actually had a 24-7 lead on the Vols at one point, and Joe Tereshinski, bless his poor maligned Polish soul, was moving the team along pretty authoritatively before the wheels came off in the second half. The Vols ended up finishing a so-so 54th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense, and that situation may not improve much with only one returning starter (Jonathan Hefney) in the secondary.
. . .
I hear all kinds of people telling me how great they are -- they were picked to finish second in the SEC East by regional sportswriters and got 16 votes to win the division -- but in the end I gotta say I just don’t see what the big deal is. . . . I have to concede a possibility that the Tennessee front four will dramatically exceed expectations and school Georgia’s rebuilt offensive line early and often. Even then, though, I’m reminded of 2003, when Georgia came to Knoxville with an O-line that made this year’s look like the ’83 Redskins’; the running game didn’t accomplish much until the game was already well in hand, granted, but that rickety line still gave David Greene enough time to tear the Tennessee secondary several new ones.
What's happened since then: Georgia has put together a 4-1 record, 2-1 in the SEC, with only a close loss to currently 11th-ranked South Carolina mucking things up; Tennessee has alternated blowout losses to ranked teams (Cal and Florida) with solid but hardly overwhelming victories against mid-majors (Southern Miss and Arkansas State) to sit at 2-2.
Not appearing in your picture: "tackling."
Care to amend your initial statement, sir?: Not all that much, really. I think my lack of awe with respect to the Vols' defense has turned out to be justified; they're currently ranked 83rd in Division I-A against the pass, 88th against the run, and 95th overall (allowing a total of 439 yards a game). Granted, they've faced some impressive offenses over the first month of the season, but upchucking 59 points to Florida looks a lot less excusable now that the Gators have been figured out by Auburn, and even against the lesser offenses of Southern Miss and Arkansas State, their defense was less than Steel-Curtain-like.
Of course, the Georgia defense, while substantially better statistically than Tennessee's, has not been without problems of its own. The AJC's Chip Towers dishes the inconvenient truth that in three conference games, the defense has displayed an unsettling tendency to give up long scoring drives at the most critical junctures -- to wit, the fourth-quarter South Carolina field goal that gave the 'Cocks a two-score lead; the two long fourth-quarter drives Alabama used to tie up the game in regulation; and the epic opening drive of the second half that ended with Ole Miss tying the Dawgs at 17. In the latter two instances, the offense picked up the slack and put the game away, and they may yet be able to do that against Tennessee's defense, but given that the Dawgs pissed away a 24-7 lead in last year's game and ended up losing by three scores, I'd rather not hand over any more momentum to Erik Ainge than we absolutely have to.
The Bulldog defense does have one big motivator, though: the fact that, last year, Tennessee became only the second team ever to drop "half-a-hundred" on the Dawgs in their own house. The media have already put out a slew of stories about how that embarrassment continues to nag at the defense, and if that's gotten them to hunker down this week and focus on crushing the UT offense, so much the better.
If the Georgia players are anything like me, then their memories of that night are not exactly fond.
Last year the Vols' David-Cutcliffe-rejuvenated offense passed the ball 38 times and ran it 34; this year, the key to holding off UT has been to keep their offensive attack as one-dimensional as possible. Tennessee's rushing attack is only 75th in the nation right now after being held to 111 net rushing yards by Cal and only 37 by Florida; I think we'll have slightly better luck containing the rushing attack than we did last week against Ole Miss's mammoth offensive line, but even if we do, Ainge's arm still worries me. I said in the preseason that Cutcliffe would have the passing game operating nicely despite what basically amounted to a brand-new receiving corps, and so far, he has.
But then there's the wild card, which, as always, is special teams -- specifically the punt-return game. In Knoxville in 2001, Damien Gary returned a punt 72 yards for a score that shifted the momentum in the game and allowed Georgia to fight back from a 14-3 first-quarter deficit. In 2005, Thomas Flowers returned a punt 54 yards for a TD to put us up 20-7 in the fourth quarter. Last year, we got both a punt return and a kickoff return for TDs. So far this year, Georgia ranks 22nd in the country in punt-return yardage, with Mikey Henderson averaging about 15 yards per return (with a long of 63 against Oklahoma State).
Guess what? Tennessee is dead last in Division I-A in punt-return defense. Granted, only six of their 18 punts have been returned, but those six returns have averaged nearly 30 yards apiece.
If I could find a picture of his back for Vol fans to memorize, I'd use it.
I'd like to see Stafford test the opposing defense downfield, something we really haven't done a lot this season, but as long as we score first and get into a rhythm with the running game, I think we've got a great chance. We did both of those things against Alabama, so as imposing as Tennessee's stadium and crowd are, I'm confident Stafford won't let them into his head. Even if we get off to a fast start like we did in Tuscaloosa, Ainge is a dangerous enough passing threat that I don't see us ever putting the Vols too far in our rearview mirror, but if the defense can get a big stop or two in the second half and keep Ainge from turning the game into a shootout, we should be able to grab a one-touchdown victory, as originally predicted.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia wins by double digits. I may be pushing it a little bit by asking for that -- given that the Vegas oddsmakers are still going with Tennessee as the favorite, I should probably just be happy with a victory of any kind. But after last year's meltdown, we could use another big win over the Vols in their own house to show them that they haven't won back the daddy pants in this rivalry just yet.
Someday I'm going to have this enlarged, framed, and hung over my fireplace.