Tennessee is coming off a near-disastrous 31-24 win over South Alabama, a victory that wasn’t secured until Brian Randolph intercepted a Jaguars pass in the end zone with less than two minutes remained.
Sixth-ranked Georgia comes to Knoxville riding an emotional high of beating LSU, 44-41, and with the knowledge it has defeated the Vols three straight times.
So, it was perhaps expected when Bulldogs coach Mark Richt was asked earlier in the week if he was concerned about a letdown in Saturday’s nationally televised game at Knoxville.
“You don’t ever want to let down,” Richt said, “but we’re playing Tennessee so I don’t foresee a letdown. If we were playing somebody else, you might start talking that way, but not when you play Tennessee.”
A behind-the-microphone translation: “Even if we let down, we’re Georgia. They’re Tennessee. We can still beat them like a stepchild. Don’t worry.”
After a season-opening loss to Clemson, Georgia has knocked off, in succession, South Carolina (41-30), North Texas (45-21) and LSU. The trend is obvious. Georgia’s offense is a high-power unit directed by Aaron Murray, one of the country’s top quarterbacks.
Murray, the national offensive player of the week for his performance – 20-for-34, 298 yards and four touchdowns – against LSU, needs 99 yards to become the Southeastern Conference’s all-time leader in passing yards. Murray has 11,429 passing yards, just behind former Bulldogs’ standout David Greene’s 11,528.
Murray is also the first quarterback in SEC history to have three consecutive 3,000-yard passing seasons.
The 6-foot-1-inch, 208-pound senior appears to be on a mission this season.
“I’ve never been a guy who’s worried about stats, it’s all about winning, winning, winning,” Murray said earlier in the week. “But it’s definitely an honor to be alongside some of those guys like David Greene and (Danny) Wuerffel (of Florida), guys who did some unbelievable things while they were at their colleges.”
Murray doesn’t sound like he’s worried about Georgia having a letdown in a game where Tennessee is pulling out all the stops – the most public of which is wearing brand new smoky gray uniforms to excite players, coaches and most of an expected sellout crowd of 102,000-plus fans – against a team that hasn’t won in this series since 2009.
“I think we are feeling great,” he said. “We have a lot of momentum. We’ve been practicing our tails off, just getting after it, working and training hard, staying very focused in meetings and on the field.”
Georgia has played at a near-brilliant level in the overall scheme of things in 2013 while the Vols have looked like an unsteady ship in turbulent water a lot of the time. Granted, Tennessee has played two nationally ranked teams and that mine-field schedule continues Saturday with the Bulldogs and against No. 12 South Carolina (Oct. 19) and No. 1 Alabama (Oct. 26).
The Bulldogs are favored by 10.5 points to 15 points, a modest spread by anyone with the slightest knowledge of the two teams.
“I think it’s going to be crazy,” Georgia wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley said. “We’re on offense and they’re going to be trying to distract us. The band’s going to be playing Rocky Top. Orange will be everywhere. I heard they have new jerseys, too, so they are going to be amped up.”
Once the tackling, running and passing starts, however, the new adidas uniforms won’t matter much.
“You just use them for extra juice,” Vols offensive lineman James Stone said. “It’s all about how we play, it’s not about what we wear. It’s something cool, it’s something fun, it’s just something of an incentive to play as hard as you can.”
Georgia has the wherewithal to play harder and longer than Tennessee.
That’s Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ concern.
“We have some major depth issues,” he said, “and it’s starting to be revealed.”
Linebacker A.J. Johnson played 83 snaps in last week’s game. Another linebacker, Dontavis Sapp had 82 defensive snaps and 12 more on special teams.
“Every single rep you take accumulates over time throughout the course of the grind of a long season,” Jones said.
There is one probing question about Saturday’s game, which could be asked of each team.
Does Georgia believe it can win?
Does Tennessee believe it can win?
While both teams would answer “yes,” most fans – no matter which team they back – would believe Georgia’s response more strongly than Tennessee’s.
“I think our adrenaline is pumping right now,” Richt said. “Right now I’m excited about how things have gone, especially as of late. I’ve said it all along, they’re a great bunch of guys. They try extremely hard to do it the Georgia way.
“If you can have that kind of an atmosphere and culture on your team, and then you win, it’s exciting. We just have to keep it rolling.”
Jones is still on the prowl, just five games into his tenure in Knoxville, to put a team on the field that can withstand the onslaught of SEC powers.
“There is a difference,” he said, “between playing the game and competing. We are searching for competitive greatness.”
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)