ATHENS, Ga. -- Following a blowout win against Vanderbilt last week, many Georgia fans are already looking ahead to next week and the No. 5 Bulldogs’ showdown with No. 6 South Carolina.
That is a highly similar scenario to one that derailed Mark Richt’s 2004 Bulldogs, who were undefeated, harbored national title hopes and walloped defending BCS champ LSU one week only to fall to 12.5-point underdog Tennessee the next. Georgia (4-0, 2-0 SEC) can’t afford such a flat effort Saturday and look past an improving Tennessee (3-1, 0-1) club.
1. The gang’s back together
Safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree have likely had this date circled for months as it marks their return to the Bulldogs’ lineup. Richt will only say his two defensive stars will finally be off suspension if they are in full pads during pregame warmups, but all other indications are that this will be the first week that the Bulldogs’ vaunted defense has all of its starters available.
2. Stopping Bray and Co.
Now that they’re back, how will the Bulldogs be able to defend Tyler Bray and the Volunteers’ impressive passing game? Tennessee is averaging 513.8 yards of total offense -- second in the SEC only behind Georgia’s 530 -- thanks in large part to quarterback Bray and all-star receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Hunter is sixth nationally with 410 receiving yards and Patterson is second in the SEC with 512 all-purpose yards.
3. Can scoring streak continue?
Georgia has already established a new offensive benchmark by scoring 40-plus points in its first four games -- marking the first such four-game stretch in any season in program history. Can quarterback Aaron Murray and the prolific Bulldogs offense keep it going against a Tennessee defense that is surrendering 24.2 points per game in its first season operating Sal Sunseri’s new 3-4 scheme?
4. Dooley’s rebuilding effort
Tennessee is clearly a more competent team than the one coach Derek Dooley inherited in 2010 when he took over from Lane Kiffin, but the Vols’ modest 3-1 start is actually the program’s best since 2006. Dooley is still in search of his first big win -- and it’s been awhile for Tennessee, as well. One of the nation’s winningest programs, Tennessee hasn’t beaten a ranked team since No. 21 South Carolina in 2009, hasn’t beaten a top-10 team since No. 10 Georgia in 2006 and hasn’t beaten a top-five team since No. 4 LSU in 2004.
5. Struggling special teams
Georgia and Tennessee have both had a variety of issues on special teams -- oddly enough on extra points, specifically. The Vols have already missed three PATs in 19 tries, which ranks last in the SEC, while Georgia freshman Marshall Morgan has missed one and a bad snap last week prevented him from even attempting one PAT. Such mishaps could prove costly if Saturday’s game is close.