Tennessee’s upcoming four-game stretch might be the most difficult in the country.
Beginning Saturday at No. 5 Georgia, the Volunteers play four straight opponents that are ranked in this week’s polls. There are also road games at No. 6 South Carolina and No. 21 Mississippi State and a home game against top-ranked Alabama.
But they do appear to be getting a bit of a break in terms of when they play Georgia — sandwiched between the Bulldogs’ rout of Vanderbilt and next week’s showdown at South Carolina.
The Bulldogs (2-0, 4-0), particularly defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and nose tackle Kwame Geathers, surely took more delight than you would expect in hammering James Franklin’s Commodores after Georgia’s heated, suspension-producing 33-28 victory last year in Nashville. And Grantham and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt will be eager for a crack at Steve Spurrier, who needled then-first year coordinator Grantham after South Carolina’s win in 2010, made a remark last spring about Georgia’s high frequency of player suspensions and said he hoped Tennessee would beat Georgia while responding to the Volunteers practicing at Science Hill High School’s Steve Spurrier Field as part of a week away from Knoxville during fall camp.
So the Volunteers (0-1, 3-1), whose shaky 47-26 win against Akron did little to silence criticism that surfaced after a home loss to Florida the previous week, might sneak into Athens without the undivided attention of the Bulldogs.
Head coach Mark Richt, whose Bulldogs are favored by 13½ points, apparently is somewhat unnerved by the psychological setup he senses.
“We played a game like we played against Vanderbilt when we played LSU in ’04, one of those what people would call a complete game,” Richt said during his press conference Tuesday. “Everything just seemed to work that day. … The very next week we were favored to beat Tennessee. Tennessee came in with a freshman quarterback (Erik Ainge) and beat us. I wanted to help them understand that it could happen and we better get our minds right.”
Tennessee has an experienced junior quarterback this year, although coach Derek Dooley still discusses Tyler Bray’s maturation process as if he’s younger. The 6-foot-6 Bray caught flak for what looked like a halfhearted finish against Florida, but responded well after throwing an interception for a touchdown on the opening series against the Akron.
Granted, the Zips’ defense isn’t going to be mistaken for Florida or Georgia. But Bray didn’t hang his head.
“I think it was a big step for Tyler,” Dooley said. “There were a lot of conversations (after Florida) about how you manage what goes wrong in a game and how your body language and your thoughts and your words can affect other people, especially guys on the team. He made some bad throws early, bad decisions early, and he was frustrated, you know, wanting to get something to happen. But he really kept a nice calm about him and worked his way through the game and he got better and better and better as the game went on.”
Dooley wonders if Bray’s laid-back demeanor is misinterpreted for a lack of passion.
“You know, Tyler wants to be a good quarterback and he’s on a journey of being one,” Dooley said. “And I think his level of want-to and want to win and want to be a good quarterback is a lot greater than what might be the perception of many. And hey, we all bring things on ourselves. And so his goal is to just work his way out of that and prove to people not only is he a really good quarterback, but how important it is to be good and how important it is to help this team win.”
Georgia is obviously wary of the strong-armed Bray and tall, swift receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Bray has completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,301 yards, 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. Hunter has 30 catches for 410 yards and four TDs and Patterson has 19 catches for 259 yards and two TDs.
“Quarterback Tyler Bray is a very talented passer, and one of the most talented passers that I’ve seen in awhile throwing the football,” said Richt, who has a quality quarterback in junior Aaron Murray. “They have some tremendously skilled receivers. They’ve got a vertical passing game that I know I envy. We like to throw it down the field, but they can really lay it out there good.”
Tennessee will have to account for outside linebacker/defensive end Jarvis Jones, who transferred from Southern Cal. The 6-foot-3, 241-pound red-shirt junior had 13 ½ sacks and an astounding 49 quarterback hurries in his first season with the Bulldogs last year.
Jones, a projected top-five draft pick in numerous NFL mock drafts, has 4 ½ sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception in three games this season.
“He can just wreck your game plan,” Dooley said, “because of his athleticism and ability to win on pass-rush and be disruptive in the backfield.”
But Tennessee has generally been pretty good at pass protection. In fact, if Bray and company are clicking on offense and the defense or special teams gets a break or two, Georgia doesn’t necessarily have to show up flat to leave Sanford Stadium deflated on Saturday.
“If we lose, we lose, but you want to play your best,” Richt said. “That’s what I’m trying to make sure we do.”