ATHENS, Ga. -- For Georgia fans worried that the No. 6 Bulldogs (3-1, 2-0 SEC) might somehow overlook Tennessee (3-2, 0-1) on Saturday, you'll be happy with the message Bulldogs coach Mark Richt sent to his team this week.
“He said something along the lines of, 'If this team's not focused, I don't know how good we are' -- and it's true,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I think the reason why we've been so successful is we've been extremely focused in the film room, on the practice field and we really worked our tails off. I think that's why we've been able to put ourselves in the situation we have been these past four games.”
The Bulldogs must have been reasonably focused in order to win the last three games after dropping the season opener at Clemson. They knocked off South Carolina and LSU -- both of which were ranked No. 6 nationally when they fell to Georgia -- and plodded through a win against North Texas between them.
None of those wins came easily for the Bulldogs, and Richt doesn't expect Saturday's visit to Neyland Stadium to be a cakewalk, either.
“Going to Knoxville is never easy,” Richt said. “Coaching in this league for 13 years now, I've been there a few times and have probably run every gamut of emotion from elation to getting your tail kicked. We know it's going to be a great atmosphere and there will be over 100,000 people screaming for the Vols. We know we have our work cut out.”
The Bulldogs simply need to keep doing what they're doing on offense. Despite the tough early schedule, they rank second in the SEC and sixth nationally in total offense with an average of 554 yards per game and they're fourth in the league in scoring at 41.2 points per game.
It's on defense where the Bulldogs must make some strides. They're last in the SEC in scoring defense (32.5 ppg) and 11th in total defense (403.8 ypg), but Tennessee's spread offense hasn't exactly struck fear into opponents' hearts lately.
Tennessee struggled mightily in back-to-back losses to Oregon (59-14) and Florida (31-17) before barely edging South Alabama 31-24 this past Saturday. The Volunteers have the least productive offense in the league (369.4 ypg) because of ineffective quarterback play and a floundering passing attack.
That creates a weakness-against-weakness matchup to watch on Saturday, as Tennessee's SEC-worst passing game (154 ypg) tries to exploit the holes in Georgia's pass defense, which ranks second-to-last in the league at 277 yards allowed per game.
Georgia's secondary issues were particularly evident last week on third down, when LSU converted 10 of 15 opportunities for first downs -- breakdowns that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said prevented Georgia from winning more comfortably.
“I feel our physical ability is there,” Grantham said. “Sometimes we're not where we need to be technique-wise. Sometimes we're not where we need to be from a communication standpoint. And you can't get caught up in the last play.”
Likewise, the veteran Bulldogs understand they can't get caught up in their last win, as exciting as it was for everyone on the Georgia sideline. Much like when Richt took his first Georgia team to Knoxville and pulled the upset in 2001, first-year Vols coach Butch Jones is looking for a signature win to establish his program on Saturday -- and the Bulldogs don't want to be the generous party.
“That's what we're going to press all week,” tight end Arthur Lynch said. “This team is dangerous, they have a new coach, they're hungry for a big win and they could turn their season around with a win against a top-10 opponent. We just have to stay headstrong and stay focused.”