And you may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful offense! My God! What have I done?
Hometown: Knoxville, Tenn.
Last season: Ran up a 28-0 halftime lead on the Bulldogs at Neyland Stadium and informed them that they would be sitting down to pee for the remainder of the season; the Dawgs complied, eventually losing 35-14, and after claiming three more conference victories by three points or fewer, the Vols came away with the SEC East title. They lost to the eventual national champs in the SEC title game but beat 18th-ranked Wisconsin 21-17 in the Outback Bowl, and finished the season ranked #12 in both polls.
The season thus far: Diagnosis FAIL. The Vols started 2008 by losing to UCLA, a team that has done virtually nothing right since, and has also sustained a donkeybonking from Florida and a close, plug-ugly loss to Auburn. The season's high points: home victories over UAB and Northern Illinois, the latter by four whole points.
Hate index, 1 being Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, 10 being Sarah Palin as Sarah Palin: Forty-one. I shouldn't have to explain why.
Associated hottie: You'd think that UT's distinguished-alumni list would be frontloaded with former Miss Tennessees, maybe a handful of hot country-music singers, but Wikipedia's alumni list is kind of a sausage fest. It does, however, include Candace Parker, who owns two NCAA national-championship rings and an Olympic gold medal, not to mention the distinction of being the only WNBA player ever to ever dunk.
I would be remiss if I didn't also mention fellow sportsblogger Holly Anderson, who both writes her own blog, Snarkastic, and is a frequent contributor at Every Day Should Be Saturday, where her "Stuff Orange and White People Like" magnum opus earned her a hasty and probably ill-advised marriage proposal from Yours Truly this past spring. Fair warning, you'll be hearing more from her this week.
Celebrity preview: Rabid Vol fan Osama bin Laden issues a fatwa against the hated Bulldogs here.
What excites me: Auburn fans, if you're looking for a silver lining for what has been a, uh, difficult start to the season so far, you can find it at Tennessee, where the "Clawfense" of new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson has been a virtually unmitigated clusterfuck from the word “go.” The Vols are currently 97th in the nation in total offense, tied for 107th in scoring offense, 98th in passing offense, 110th in passing efficiency, and tied for 73rd in turnover margin. Their running game is, comparatively speaking, a strength at 146.4 yards per game (61st nationally), but that's still suspiciously mild salsa for a team rotating Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty, and Lennon Creer in the backfield. If you listened really closely, you could hear “Yakety Sax” playing throughout the entirety of the UT-Auburn game a couple weeks ago.
The horror! The horror!
One common thread, though, between the offensive struggles at Tennessee and Auburn is that neither Clawson nor (the late) Tony Franklin seem to have any idea what to do with the wealth of talent they both have/had in the backfield. Against Northern Illinois last week, Foster had only ten carries through three quarters, Hardesty only two; these 12 carries netted a grand total of 38 yards. It was only in the fourth quarter, with the Vols holding a four-point lead and simply trying to run out the clock, that Tennessee switched to favoring the run by a margin of 15 plays to 2, and Foster and Hardesty combined for 54 yards on 13 carries. A little birdie has apparently told Paul Westerdawg that this was due to Fulmer grabbing the steering wheel from Clawson and calling his own plays in the fourth quarter, but Fulmer still didn't see fit to give any touches to Lennon Creer, the forgotten man in the UT backfield despite leading the team with an 8.9-yard per-carry average (and despite displaying virtually none of the fumble propensity that has plagued Foster this year).
Then there's Nick Stephens, who took over from the truly terrible Jonathan Crompton at QB for last week's game and acquitted himself decently: 10-of-17, 156 yards, one touchdown, no picks (though he did lose a fumble after getting sacked in the third quarter). All reports I've heard indicated that Stephens was clear-eyed and surefooted in the pocket, exhibiting none of the indecisiveness or outright panic that Crompton displayed repeatedly through the Vols' first four games, and the one time he was called upon to really launch it, he hit Denarius Moore in perfect stride for a 52-yard TD bomb. Which is all well and good, but the fact remains that Stephens has taken the field against all of two opponents this season, UAB and NIU, and hasn't attempted a single pass away from the friendly confines of Neyland Stadium. Not that Georgia's pass defense has been a beast this year, but there's a pretty wide gap between NIU at home and Georgia on the road, and Willie Martinez shouldn't hesitate to exploit that.
OK, well, here's one offense that's almost as embarrassing as ours.
What worries me: If I were a Tennessee fan, the thing I'd be most frustrated about at this point is that the catastro-liciousness of the "Clawfense" is squandering one of UT's best defensive efforts in years. The 2008 Vol defense has been as stifling as the offense has been inept — 13th in the nation against the run, 12th against the pass, fifth overall, 26th in points allowed. Granted, they haven't faced a truly elite offense this season — I guest the closest thing would be Florida, who isn't operating nearly efficiently this year as they did in '07 — but they've still done a pretty admirable job of swarming to the ball, averaging 1.8 sacks and 6.4 tackles for loss per game. Plus they have the added feel-good factor of having absolutely crushed Georgia's offense last year, so there'll be no lack of confidence on their part, particularly knowing that they may have to carry the team for many more weeks.
And as bad as Tennessee's offense has looked this year, they can still make lemonade out of lemons if the fourth quarter against NIU really does signal a meaningful shift away from the high comedy of the Clawfense toward a more traditional form of smash-mouth, run-between-the-tackles Tennessee football. It's no secret to anyone that Georgia has been hurting in a big way in terms of injuries ever since the season started, and the disaster against Alabama only made things worse; as Paul Westerdawg gravely explains, we now have no fewer than four linebackers nursing boo-boos of varying degrees of severity, including the leader of that unit, senior Dannell Ellerbe. Georgia has been mostly excellent against the run this season, but Alabama demonstrated just how effective a truly balanced offense can be against us. The homer response to that caveat is "Don't get your panties in a wad, Nick Stephens is going to suck," but . . . well, think of how many of us (myself included, now that I think about it) were saying the same things about John Parker Wilson.
Player who needs to step up: CB Asher Allen. As I mentioned earlier, if we want to continue the success we've had against the run so far this season, we need to truly "one-dimensionalize" this offense the way we did to South Carolina and Arizona State, and that means rendering Nick Stephens a non-factor early — which isn't going to be accomplished by simply rolling our eyes and saying "Ehh, this quarterback's a nobody." We have to respect both Stephens and his excellent stable of receivers until they give us a reason not to, and as the leader of this secondary, Allen is going to play a pivotal role in that.
Man. I'm ready to just say the hell with all this and retire so I can go work on my donut farm.
What I think will happen: Tennessee is on the ropes right now after getting punked by a mediocre Pac-10 team in their opener and abjectly humiliated by Florida; their best performances so far have been a pair of sleepwalks past subpar out-of-conference opponents. They're actually doing pretty well on one side of the ball, but they're completely clueless on the other, and once again, the long knives are coming out for Phil Fulmer's job. It's a situation tailor-made for Georgia to take advantage of, particularly since we're certain to be hell-bent for revenge after what the Vols did to us last year.
Does this scenario sound familiar? It should, because it's the exact same fucking situation we were in this time last year, right before Georgia went up to Knoxville and delivered the single worst performance I've seen them crap out in the entire Richt era. So please, Bulldog Nation, I beg of you, disabuse yourselves right now of any notion that this game comes down to a simple equation of (Good Georgia Team - Bad Tennessee Team) x Revenge Factor = Huge Blowout Win. It wasn't anywhere near that simple last year, and you can be damn sure Phil Fulmer will do anything and everything in his power to keep it from being that simple this weekend.
Frankly, I'm more than a little worried about this report implying a lack of energy in the Georgia locker room, amongst the defense at least, so far this week. You'd think that a three-touchdown horsewhipping at the hands of a hated rival you were supposed to run all over would be enough to stoke anyone's fires of vengeance to thermonuclear levels, but maybe that isn't the case. And maybe I'm making too much of this to begin with, but whatever's actually going through the minds of our players at the moment, this is a revenge game against a division arch-rival in front of the home crowd at a time when we've got a lot of respect to earn back. There's no excuse not to be geeked up about it, and if we're not sufficiently geeked up at the moment, we need to find the way there in a hurry.
Anything, anything, to keep this from happening again.
That's particularly important for the defense, because I have a funny feeling the outcome of this game rests primarily on whether Nick Stephens is allowed to look like a hero. Last year, Tennessee's out-of-nowhere resurgence against the Dawgs was keyed by their defense, which had been trampled repeatedly in their first four games but used disrespect as a motivation to rise up and crush Georgia's power running game to the tune of 69 yards on 25 carries. This year, it's the offense that can't stop tripping over its own feet, but even if their scheme is a joke, there's still enough raw talent on the roster to make the Dawgs' defense pay if they slack off for even a second.
That question of whether or not Stephens achieves hero status, in turn, is going to depend in large part on how much he's asked to do on Saturday and how much of the much-maligned "Clawfense" is kept in the game plan. My guess is that Phil Fulmer's answer to both questions is gonna be "not much." I think he's going to use a very similar strategy to the one he employed in the fourth quarter of last week's game, i.e. run, run, and run some more, tossing a pass or two into the game plan only when necessary and/or low-risk -- in other words, something a lot like what Alabama showed us two weeks ago. And I can assure you that my mentioning that was no mere coincidence, as Fulmer has almost certainly spent the entire week going over game tape of Georgia-Alabama like it was the Zapruder film. (It's probably a safe bet that every one of our remaining opponents has been calling Nick Saban up asking for that tape.)
So if I'm Willie Martinez, I'm stacking the box on first down to try and stop Arian Foster (or whoever it is they throw at us) and blitzing like a sonofabitch on anything longer than third and five. Which is not to say I'm any more confident about our ability to pressure the QB than I was two weeks ago, particularly with Rod Battle still out and our linebacking corps ailing, but dammit, man, we've got to do something. Probably we're going to end up having to devote enough personnel to the blitz that we have to trust the secondary to go man-to-man on their receivers, and none of this soft-zone bullshit, either, 'cause that killed us against the Tide.
On the offensive side of the ball, we're definitely going to present Tennessee with the most talented and balanced attack they've faced all year (yes, I know I said the exact same thing before the Alabama game, here's a nice tall glass of shut the fuck up, you're welcome). The offensive-line situation still worries me, but at least we'll have Brannan Southerland back, which should be a particularly big boost in short-yardage and goal-line situations. And while any number of positions and/or injuries might be causes for varying degrees of concern at the moment, the one guy on the squad I'm not worried about at all is Knowshon Moreno. Yes, he sustained a mild-to-moderate elbow injury against Alabama, but he was insisting as early as last week that he wasn't going to miss any playing time against Tennessee, plus he's got the added motivation of wanting to redress last year's performance (13 carries for 30 yards) against the Vols. The kid's been an emotional leader almost ever since he set foot on campus, and I'll be looking for him to be one again this Saturday.
Break 200 yards and my firstborn is yours, buddy.
Still, as much as we'd like to think we're going to get something for free against a team that's looked as downright inept as Tennessee has this season, we're not. Consider that a loss by the Vols this weekend would put them at 0-3 in the SEC for the first time in 20 years; you think they're not going to be trying like hell to avoid that? I think the Vols are going to come into this game just as motivated as we are, if not more so, and with Crompton out of the game we can't simply sit back and depend on Tennessee's QB to do something stupid (not that we should be doing that anyway after what happened against Alabama).
If we can keep Nick Stephens from pulling a Clint Longley on us, thus freeing the defense to pin its ears back and key in on the run, we'll be in great shape; if we can do that and keep Matt Stafford from having to run for his life on every play, as he seemed to be doing for substantial parts of the Alabama game, then we'll win this thing going away. But while I can see one or the other of those things happening, I just can't quite bring myself to believe we'll be lucky enough to have both. I can't ascribe this to anything more than my own highly fallible gut instinct, but I have this feeling that, whether it's due to the injuries on defense or just plain flatness, we're going to give Stephens enough breathing room for a non-heroic but pretty solid game on Saturday — not enough to earn Offensive Player of the Week honors, but enough to stay within striking distance of the Dawgs for most of the afternoon. Our offensive balance should allow us to pull off the big second-half play that more or less ices the game, but in any case, as much as I'd like to believe we can cover 13 points on the Vols, that's a tall order for a team as banged-up as ours is. Even against an opponent who apparently has Moe holding the clipboard and ordering Larry to hand off to Curly.
Spread out, knuckleheads!
If you're trash-talking: In case you skimmed over it the first time, Tennessee is 107th in scoring offense at this point in the season, tied with WAC juggernaut San Jose State. Would you like to know a few of the teams ranked above the Vols in that category? You would? Oh, joy! Those teams include Utah State (1-4), San Diego State (ditto), Washington (0-5), Auburn (just shit-canned their offensive coordinator), and Syracuse (you've got to be fucking kidding me). Conspicuously, though, none of those fine institutions have fight songs that include anything like this:
Once I had a girl on Rocky Top,
Half bear the other half cat.
Wild as a mink, sweet as soda pop,
I still dream about that.
Wow. Just . . . wow. Look, I know Deliverance was set in the north Georgia mountains, but at least that was two crazed banjo-playing mountain hillbillies cornholing a human being. Even those guys never stooped, as far as we know, to bestial acts with a female half-bear-half-feline-noid-thing. Then again, maybe UT just has a long-standing obsession with the University of Cincinnati.
Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: Because Tennessee fans are, with few notable exceptions, horrible, disgusting, socially unacceptable human beings. And they dress like traffic cones. Seriously, every game Tennessee manages to put in the “W” column only further legitimizes hunting-vest/Air Force target-drone orange as an acceptable wardrobe choice, and do you really want that on your conscience? Do you?
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia wins by 21 points or more in the process of shutting Tennessee out. Seriously, people, mere victory is not called for this weekend; we, the faithful citizens of Bulldog Nation, demand humiliation. We demand defilement. In fact, I don't even think you should feel any compunction about whipping it out and urinating on any of Tennessee's ball-carriers after a tackle. Seriously, we're the most penalized team in Division I-A — at this point, what more can the refs really do to us?
Son, you all right? You need a moist towelette or something?