Athens, GA – A key SEC East division matchup is on tap in Athens this weekend, as the fifth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs play host to the Tennessee Volunteers at Sanford Stadium.
Mark Richt's Bulldogs have looked the part of divisional favorite, running through the competition with lopsided wins over Buffalo, Missouri, Florida Atlantic and most recently, Vanderbilt (48-3) to move to 2-0 in conference play.
Derek Dooley's Volunteers are still in search of their first conference win, faltering in their only SEC matchup to date, a 37-20 home loss to rival Florida two weeks ago. Tennessee was able to put some distance between itself and its lone loss with a 47-26 win over Akron last weekend. At 3-1, the Volunteers are off to their best start since 2006.
This is the 42nd meeting in a series that dates back to 1899. Tennessee holds a 21-18-2 series advantage, including a 10-9-1 edge in games played in Athens. Georgia however, has won the last two meetings, including a 20-12 victory in Knoxville last year.
The Volunteers rank second in the SEC in total offense at 513.8 yards per game, fueled by a passing attack that generates 341.2 yards per game (eighth nationally).
Thanks to the play of quarterback Tyler Bray, the team is on pace to break the school record for passing yards set in 1997 (3,981). Bray has completed just over 63 percent of his throws thus far, for 1,301 yards with 12 TDs against three INTs. The top target has been wideout Justin Hunter, who paces the team in receptions (40), receiving yards (410) and TDs (4).
Bray was particularly effective in the win over Akron last week, posting his second career 400-yard passing game, finishing with 401 yards and four TDs on 27-of-43 passing. Hunter was once again the favorite outlet, finishing with eight receptions, for 115 yards and one TD.
The passing game is the preferred mode of travel for Tennessee, but the Vols also have a capable ground attack as well (172.5 ypg), led by tailback Rajion Neal (356 yards, 4.4 ypc, three TDs). Neal rushed for 151 yards against Akron last time out.
The Tennessee defense has had its ups and downs this season and the stats are evidence of that. The team is yielding 24.2 ppg this year and has been generous to opposing ground games, giving up 163.0 yards per game on 4.6 yards per carry. Still, the unit has found a way to make big plays, recording eight interceptions through four games.
Sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson leads the team with 31 total tackles. Junior safety Byron Moore is a close second with 30 stops and leads the team with three interceptions. Strong play in the secondary continues with senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner (18 tackles, one interception) and junior cornerback Eric Gordon (17 tackles, two interceptions).
Not many teams can match Tennessee's offensive production, but Georgia can. The Bulldogs are the top offense in the SEC, averaging a robust 530.0 yards per game. The rushing attack has been lethal at 242.5 yards per game, while the passing attack has been equally effective (287.5 ypg). The result is a scoring average of 47.5 ppg, just over 10 points more than the season record for Georgia (37.2 ppg in 1946).
Quarterback Aaron Murray has been solid thus far, completing 66.3 percent of his passes, for 1,092 yards, with 10 TDs. He has spread the ball around, with three players posting double figure receptions and all three over 260 yards in receiving. The trio of Michael Bennett, Marlon Brown and Tavarres King have combined for eight TDs.
Murray doesn't take much credit for his team's success thus far.
"The line's doing a great job; it starts with those guys," Murray said. "They're doing a great job of pass protection and run blocking. Also the receivers are just making huge plays after the catch. We're not perfect, we're pretty darn close, but we've just got to keep working and can't be satisfied with where we're at right now."
Freshman Todd Gurley may have had the biggest impact thus far though, as the 6-foot-1, 218-pound youngster is averaging a whopping 9.2 yards per carry, a conference-best 101.5 yards per game and is responsible for six of the team's 14 rushing TDs to date. He was named the SEC Freshman of the Week after rushing for a career-high 130 yards and two TDs in the win over Vanderbilt.
The Georgia defense is loaded with talent, but with the way the offense has been playing, there hasn't been a need for dynamic play on this side of the football thus far. The team is allowing 16.5 ppg this season, on 343.2 yards per game.
The crown jewel of the Georgia defense is All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones. The 6-3, 241-pound junior has 24 tackles in three games, with 7.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, one interception and 13 quarterback hurries. Sophomore linebacker Amarlo Herrara is tops on the team with 30 tackles. Senior safety Shawn Williams is a close second with 29 stops.
Dooley knows the challenge his team faces this weekend.
"We all know about Georgia. There is no sense in me talking about how good they are," said Dooley. "They are probably playing as good as I've seen them in a long time. The quarterback is averaging 10.5 an attempt, the runner is averaging 9.2 an attempt, [they are scoring] 48 points and only giving up 16. They are probably one of the most talented defenses in the country, so we've got our work cut out for us."