KNOXVILLE – The Vols open a probable stretch of four games against ranked teams with Saturday's clash at Georgia. The last time Tennessee played that many consecutive games against ranked teams was back in 1991, when the Vols faced five top-25 teams in a row. Head coach Derek Dooley is prepping his team for the first game in the tough stretch knowing that great opportunities are presented every time the Vols step on the field.
"Every time you have a big challenge there is always that opportunity that sits there with it," said Dooley on the weekly SEC teleconference. "It is like every week, you have a good opportunity but it is not going to be easy."
Taking down the fifth-ranked Bulldogs could spur the Vols as they follow Saturday's game with an open date followed by matchups at No. 21 Mississippi State, vs. No. 1 Alabama and at No. 6 South Carolina.
"Of course it will [inspire their confidence]," said Dooley when asked what a win over Georgia would mean. "That is our next step is that we are going to have to go out there and perform and beat one of these teams if that is where we want to be. If you do it, you can't get too excited because it takes about a week before the next one rolls in. If you don't do it, you can't get too down cause there is another one coming. There is a lot of opportunity."
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History doesn't favor the Vols, who have lost to Georgia in each of the last two meetings and eight of the last 12 in the series. But, that is irrelevant according to Dooley.
"I think it is something that we have discussed since back in January and February that this is a new football team," said Dooley. "This football team is not going to be held hostage for the things that have gone on in the last four years at Tennessee and the last two years that I have been here because it is a new team. We have embraced that and as far as I am concerned we have played four teams, a lot of good quarters of football, a few quarters where we haven't played so well and we just go week to week. Our team is going to be confident and I expect them to play their best."
For a bit of history, back in 1991, the Vols went 3-2 in five consecutive games against ranked teams taking down No. 21 UCLA (30-16), No. 23 Mississippi State (W, 26-24) and No. 13 Auburn (30-21) before losing to No. 10 Florida (18-35) and No. 14 Alabama (L, 19-24).
BATTLING BETWEEN THE HEDGES
Heading into a game with the No. 5 team in the country, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney knows he has a tough challenge ahead of him.
The Georgia defense has limited its opponents to 135.5 rushing yards per game coupled with just 207.8 passing yards allowed.
The Vols, who are averaging 513.8 yards of total offense in 2012, second in the league to only Georgia (530.0), will try and continue to put up big numbers this weekend.
"They are heavy, number one," said Chaney." Those are big boys, they are hard to move around, nobody has been able to do that with a lot of success yet and it is going to be quite a challenge. They do a lot of schemes over there that makes them very complicated; it is going to be a challenge, it is going to be good."
Chaney's solution to the Georgia defense? Work harder.
"I guess all I ever know is to go back to work and work harder and have more practice of particular plays that you are planning on calling in the game," said Chaney. "To me, you have to hang your hat somewhere in my position and I like to work more reps on the plays that we are going to call and hopefully we will get better at it. It is a mindset, we have to move some people out of in there and we have to feel comfortable doing so."
Working hard to make the Vols uncomfortable will undoubtedly be Jarvis Jones, who has already tallied 24 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss of 50 yards, 4.5 sacks for a loss of 38 yards, an interception, three pass break-ups and 13 quarterback hurries in 2012. Quite simply, he has been a one-man pass rush machine.
"It is hard to figure out where he is going to be," said Chaney on Jones. "He is willing to take a risk to make a play and all of the good ones tend to be able to do that. You know that he is going to be able to rush up field. He makes a lot of plays, he is a very good football player. In my opinion when you classify good football players the first quality that they all have is that they play hard, any position, it doesn't matter."
The Vols, who will likely run a no huddle offense aren't too concerned about the crowd noise that will be flooding Sanford Stadium Saturday.
"The communication set is signal based as you guys know," Chaney said. "So I would like to think that there wouldn't be a heck of a lot of difference as we move in the ball game. Obviously, when you have a bunch of people yelling at you and being mean to you it affects you sometimes."
One Vol who will not likely be affected Saturday, Tyler Bray.
"Anytime you have success and you are a young man, I think it benefits you," said Chaney. "We will see. Every game brings about new demons and new good things so who the heck knows. I feel comfortable that he went out and played pretty well [against Akron], played with a nice calmness about him this past ball game and hopefully that will continue."
DEFENDING THE PLAY ACTION
One of the biggest challenges the Vols will face this Saturday in Athens will be finding a way to defend the play-action pass which Georgia utilizes as well as any team in the country.
Part of the reason the play-action is so effective for the Bulldogs is the balance of playmakers throughout their offense, something Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is keenly aware of.
“They have a lot of weapons, they have a lot of explosive players,” Sunseri said. “What you have to do is be disciplined, play the right edge, do your assignment and this defense really has to play as a collective group. You have to be disciplined, do what you are supposed to do and we have to tackle. They have three great running backs, [Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Ken Malcome] and they are going to try to pound you. We have to swarm to the football. We have to go out there and just play great defense.”
Those three running backs have helped Georgia average 242.5 yards on the ground through the first four games. That effectiveness in the run game makes defending the play-action pass even more difficult.
“Because they have good running backs, you have to honor the run,” Sunseri said. “When you see their running backs and what they are doing, you have to honor the run. That causes separation between your secondary and your linebackers so you have a second level that is getting sucked up and the third level is backed up which means there is a lot of space for them to make good throws.”
The UT linebacker corps will be the group most tested by Georgia’s play-action but the Vols are looking forward to seeing how they stand up to the challenge.
“Absolutely it puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers and that is where you get a lot of the explosive plays,” Sunseri said. “The linebackers get sucked up and then the next thing you know they are running their skinny routes right over the top of them. They have a nice scheme. Mark [Richt] and Todd [Grantham] and all of them have done a nice job down there getting things right. They have some good football players and we just have to go match up.”
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
“We obviously have a big challenge and I hope that we take all of the lessons from the first four games, good and bad, and go be able to perform our best for 60 minutes and that is our focus.”
(On the Akron game)
“I think we prepared really well for Akron, we were ready to go. We made a couple of mistakes early in the first half and they did a good job in the first half. We ended up being in a good four quarter war. We expected it to be like that, that is how it is in college football and I was just real proud of how we came out and dominated the second half.”
(On the significance of the Georgia game)
“I don’t think there isn’t anything that is not important in these kind of games. The most important thing of all is playing for 60 minutes and not getting affected on anything that might happen in the game, good or bad. When you are playing a team like Georgia, this is probably their best team that they have had in a while. They are explosive on offense, they are still playing great defense. It is going to take 60 minutes of performing your best and seeing what happens.”
(On the rivalries at Tennessee)
“I think one thing that is unique about Tennessee is that you have so many unique rivalries. The Alabama game, the Georgia game, the Florida has become a big one, now South Carolina. It is unbelievable what is happening in this league. It’s funny because you go around on the Big Orange Caravan and everybody has the one team that they want you to beat and its always somebody different. Every week is a big rivalry and this is certainly no exception because of the amount of recruiting that we do in Georgia. We have a lot of Georgia kids on our roster. They are all big, that is how it has gotten, and that is what makes this league special.”
(On his connection to Georgia and the significance)
“That doesn’t make it any different to me. I have friends and family almost everywhere. I have them at Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Auburn, that is how this league is and that doesn’t really have any bearing on the importance of this game.”
(On the first four games this season)
“I hope it pays off. It was an opportunity for us to go out there in a really tight situation and take over the game. We have played four games, three great second halves, one really good third quarter and one bad fourth quarter. I hope that we continue to build on the identity that they have established in the first four games and correct a lot of mistakes that we have made.”
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHENEY
(On the Georgia secondary)
“I think they have been playing pretty good back there. I don’t know how the additions of the young men that have been on suspension will affect their defense, they look like they are playing pretty good right now. That is something their staff will have to sort out. I think the guys coming back are very good football players so I am sure they will find their way on the field somehow. But how they will shuffle it, I am not sure. I just know they have good players, they have them all over the secondary. They have good corners, their safeties are hitting people, so you put another good safety in there that likes to hit people and that has to benefit them.”
(On Justin King at the wildcat)
“I think he has been doing pretty good, I am very confident, it doesn’t bother me a bit to put him out there and run those plays. I think Justin has done a good job and he is similar to several of our kids with some ball security issues, which we have been working on. We just have to hold on to the ball better.”
(On the red zone)
“I think for every coach the truth lies somewhere in that. We had some execution issues and some protection problems that prohibited us from scoring some touchdowns and they made a few nice plays down there. It’s a little of both.”
(On Rajion Neal)
“I think he is getting vertical with the football a little better than he has in the past and he is playing a little harder. It is important to him, he is practicing well. I attribute most of the success on the football field in how you practice Monday through Friday and he is practicing pretty maturely now.”
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
“I think I always like to get the ball to him. He is a special player and he knows that as a wide receiver he has to continue to develop his route running skills. I have to find ways to get him involved in the ball game. I have to call plays and make sure that I get him the ball. He is very good and talented and I have to find a way to do that and that has been something that have thought a lot about since the beginning of the season and I have to continue to do that. He is pretty close [on the route running], he gets better every week. There is no doubt about that. It is tough.”
(On the passing game clicking)
“I have often said that it takes five or six games for an offense to click in the passing game. The junior college players that come in within those passing games it takes about the same amount of time. It just takes time to learn how to practice correctly, get on the same page as the quarterback, and we are working through that and the kids understand the importance of practice and are going out and trying to do that. We will continue to see improvement.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On Aaron Murray)
“Aaron has done a great job. He is delivering the ball very, very well. You have to try to disguise coverages, try to mix things up on him, make him guess, give him something he thinks he is seeing but he really isn’t. He is a very good student of the game. He is a darn good football player.”
(On Todd Gurley)
“He is just a very good running back. They are running two back runs and he breaks tackles. He reminds me a lot of Trent Richardson as far as his lower body strength. He takes the ball north and south when most people want to go east and west.”
(On Dan McCullers)
“This is more of McCullers’ game. Last week, McCullers wasn’t involved in the picture as much because it was all spread, throwing it around and dinking and dunking you. [Georgia] is going to get into what we call 21 personnel and they are going to try to see if we can stop their run. We’ll see what happens.”
(On depth on the defensive line)
“It is really important. When you get into a game like this, it is going to be a very physical football game. You can’t go in and have everybody play 60 and 70 plays, so keeping guys fresh, running guys in and out, is important.”
(On why Georgia is so explosive on offense)
“I think what they do is they make you miss. When you go to tackle them, they make you miss and next thing you know the guy is exploding. If they catch a ball, they make you miss and it’s yards after the catch, it’s yards after the first hit. That is why you have to get more than just one person there. We’re not trying to get one guy a one-on-one because they have some good athletes.”
(On Willie Bohannon)
“Willie is doing really good. As a matter of fact, Willie Bo has gone out there and he’s done a good job for us. He’s had a great week of practice to date, so I am excited about him. I think the kids are up for the challenge. They know this team is ranked fifth in the country, they know they are a good offense, they know they are explosive, so they are going to the best they can.”
(On A.J. Johnson’s instincts)
“I’d like to hope I had something to do with it, but some players have a natural ability to know where the ball is going where he can be in there. He’s made a lot of plays for us in the first four games and I’m hoping he keeps on making them. My thing with A.J. is I want him to get better and better every single week. Whether it is declaring the fronts, making sure people are in the right gaps, I want him to be a student of the game. When you have a middle linebacker that understands it and knows it, it is going to prosper for him down the road because when you go to the National Football League it is about putting yourself in position to make plays.”
(On Byron Moore)
“I really enjoyed [seeing] Byron come up and do a nice role last week taking [Brian] Randolph’s place. He made plays. I think he was our most productive player last week and he was our player of the game and that was a heck of a role after stepping in for Randolph.”
(On playing on the road)
“I believe this is our second road game, in my eyes. We went to Atlanta, you still had to travel, you still had to sleep in a hotel and all that. To me, we’ve already experienced that when we went down to Georgia and beat NC State. Now we have to go down to Athens to play Georgia and we have to play good, solid football.”
(On playing in a hostile environment)
“When you make the trips and you are on the road, you’ve done it and know what to expect. You know it is going to be a very hostile environment. We have to go in there knowing that there are going to be 70,000-plus people going to the game and it will be us 70 playing against the state of Georgia.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)