Anything happen while I was gone?
Well, good Lord. I go on a little business travel, walk away from this thing for a few weeks and this is the world I return to? Kentucky playing South Carolina to decide who's the Beast in the East? A morning after in which half the top ten takes a demotion? In which, via transitive football herpes, USF looks like the best team in the Sunshine State (USF>Auburn>Florida>Miami & FSU)? In which the bloom is suddenly and emphatically off the Urban Meyer rose?
Seriously, I feel like I've returned home to find the kid has turned into Teen Wolf, the wife has run off with a lesbian biker gang and Britney Spears' career is fully restored.
When we last heard from our humble correspondent, he was enjoying music in the park, Georgia was toodling around with a directional Carolina school in advance of a journey into the jaws of Saban and South Carolina/Kentucky were mostly an amusing aside in an SEC story principally concerned LSU and its chainsaw genitalia. "When the going gets weird," Raoul Duke famously observed, "the weird turn pro."
Today, we find ourselves in a world in which tickets to the Red River Shootout are as easy to find in Dallas as BMWs parked in front of mobile homes. Fortunately, there are familiar sights to sustain us in this brave new world.
Still, we find ourselves entering terrain in which nothing is what it seems, even when clad in red and black. In a stark role reversal from most of the Mark Richt era, it's the Georgia defense that seems plenty good on paper and yet still needs the offense to save its ass in critical moments.
And while other offenses pack the pews at the Church of the Spread Option, Georgia's contentedly lines up in the I-formation and runs toss sweeps for 300 yards like it's not a day past 1982. Remember all those concerns about the mostly underclassmen offensive line and its new position coach, Stacy Searels? Granted, they're not the '82 Redskins OL, but they have their moments, like this one:
That brings us to Knoxville, which in recent years has gone from house of horrors to home away from home for the Bulldogs. For Georgia and Tennessee fans alike, there are some tasty matchups to look forward to: Georgia's prolific running game vs. Tennessee's porous rushing defense, Tennessee's equally prolific passing game against Georgia's interception-allergic secondary, the inevitable Georgia punt return for a touchdown that has been a staple of every Georgia-Tennessee game since 2001, the Jekyll-and-Hyde Georgia passing game against Tennessee's flag-football secondary.
When I don't know what the hell's going to happen, I look at which team has the more experienced QB (Tennessee), the team that can run the ball (Georgia), the team with the nastier defense (Georgia, with a stack of "ifs" and "buts") and whose coaching staff inspires more confidence in a big game setting (Georgia – and I think there's no shortage of Tennessee fans who would readily 'fess up to that). South Carolina had the same advantages last night that Georgia brings to Knoxville on Saturday and that worked out all right for the Gamecocks.
When those answers are inconclusive, I start looking at intangibles. Tennessee has the home crowd, albeit one that can be quickly silenced for long periods after a big play (the quintessential example being Sean Jones, 2003). Tennessee has had the all-important immediately preceding bye week (I contend to this day that Ron Zook owes much, if not all, of his 2-1 mark against Richt to preceding bye weeks). Tennessee has also spent the last two weeks hearing about the supposed hot seat under its head coach's considerable can. Of course, that one can go either way: the result could be "Win one for the Pumpkin" or merely self-fulfilling prophecy. Sports psychology is a fascinating, but highly speculative science – or a voodoo designed to enrich bookies.
The intangibles favoring Georgia are Richt's 22-3 road record (some of which I attribute to the fact that our players can't hear our "fans" booing) and the fact that its defense ought to have one hell of a case of red-ass from last year's 51-33 meltdown in Athens. Then again, Florida expected vengeance against Auburn last week and look how well that worked out. Also, Georgia is an underdog, in spite of being ranked higher, so there's a disrespect factor.
With all that said, "intangibles" are mostly something for pundits to fill on-air minutes and column inches with. Repeatedly, I've read comments from coaches and players that intangibles impact the first five running minutes of a game and after that, "you're just playing football." When I've coached teams, my advice has typically been to clear all the voices out of your head and just play. Home crowds, off-weeks, pollsters, Vegas oddsmakers and Internet rumors won't make your QB go through his reads better or help your RBs find their holes quicker.
As Richt noted, the off-week is good for shoring up fundamentals that may have eroded during the season and for having a more thorough dress rehearsal for a game. But it's not enough time, say, to install a new offense or re-wire your defense. Tennessee is tweaking its depth chart on defense and I'm sure they're working on their OL blocking schemes.
But I don't think Phil Fulmer is the kind of tactician to pull of what Urban Meyer did with a week off before Jacksonville in 2005, in which he excised large portions of his playbook to accommodate the fact that QB Chris Leak would never have the mobility and hard-nosed attitude to run the spread option. Plus, they switched jerseys to the retina-searingly ugly single orange sleeve, utterly devastating the delicate sensibilities of Georgia fans who seize over fashion faux pas like jorts. Instead, Tennessee is going to try to do what they've been doing all season (and, really, for much of Fulmer's and David Cutcliffe's shared tenures), but with better execution.
It's important (and aggravating to absolutely no end) to note that Tennessee is 2-0 against us with Erik Ainge as its starting QB. Given time in the backfield, he will perform open-heart surgery on our secondary. With Marcus Howard and Jeff Owens dealing with various ailments, the first thing I'll be watching for is how much pressure we're putting on Ainge up front. I wouldn't be surprised to see Tennessee leverage off-week blocking drills into an impressive opening drive. The question is how well and how quickly can Willie Martinez adjust?
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee will doubtless look better on D than they've looked in weeks past. They've had two weeks to re-learn tackle football and to hear about how soft they are. When they don't look like what we expect them to look like (as they inevitably won't), will it be smarter to start flinging it around or stay hammerhead with the running game until we establish the damned thing?
Special teams are the real X-factor here. Punt returns, blocked punts, squibbed kick-offs and blocked field goals have defined this series since 2001. There is simply no excuse for either team to discount the importance special teams in this game. If it were Tommy Tuberville at UT's helm with two weeks to prepare, you could bet the mortgage on this being a trickeration fiesta in orange. But, like Lloyd Carr, Fulmer has made his bed on burying opponents on talent alone – to hell with fancy plays.
So, having laid out my qualifiers, I expect to win, but by no means comfortably and by no means is that a comfortable expectation. Something along the lines of 30-24 or 34-30 seems reasonable.