Sanford Stadium would be the storybook setting for Derek Dooley’s pivot toward a Tennessee turnaround, but even Dooley believers must be tempted to hedge their bets against No. 5 Georgia.
The Volunteers (0-1, 3-1) take on the Bulldogs (2-0, 4-0) today at 3:30 p.m. (CBS) as 14-point underdogs. Georgia’s favored for reasons such as veteran quarterback Aaron Murray, freshmen running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who looks like a future All-Pro.
Tennessee’s mediocrity in recent years is a factor, too.
Dooley is 0-11 against ranked opponents during his career. He’s 14-15 overall at Tennessee and 4-13 in the SEC. And his resume has never seemed more lacking than now in Athens, where the specter of his father Vince, who won a national championship during a 24-year career that landed him the athletic director job, looms large.
Georgia coach Mark Richt’s Bulldogs have their fans thinking national championship, and a breakthrough victory by Dooley would rock Athens like Herschel Walker colliding with Bill Bates.
Not that Dooley’s Vols lack firepower. Junior quarterback Tyler Bray, receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Mychal Rivera can tax any defense when clicking.
After disappearing against Florida in the fourth quarter and having to pull away from lowly Akron in the fourth quarter, it’s easy to forget Tennessee was ranked for the first time in more than four years before its 37-20 home loss to the Gators on Sept. 15.
Indeed, the Vols looked as good as Florida — for nearly three quarters.
“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,” Dooley said, “because when you play a team like Georgia — this is probably their best team they’ve had in a while. They’re as explosive as they’ve ever been on offense and they’re still playing great defense.”
The Bulldogs are coming off a 48-3 humbling of what was thought to be a decent Vanderbilt team, and piled up 302 of their 567 yards total offense on the ground against the Commodores. Georgia scored 41 points at Missouri in its other SEC win and leads the league in offense.
The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Gurley leads the SEC in rushing (406 yards). He is averaging 9.2 yards on his 44 rushes, which have produced six touchdowns.
“He reminds me a lot of Trent Richardson as far as his lower body strength,” said UT defensive coordinator Sul Sunseri, who was previously at Alabama with Richardson.
After hearing of Sunseri’s comparison, Richt said: “Todd’s a big, physical guy. He’s got such a strong lower body people tend to bounce off of him. And he’s got a heck of a stiff-arm to go along with it, with some very good game speed, balance.”
The 5-foot-11, 216-pound Marshall is averaging 6.3 yards and has scored three TDs on 42 attempts.
Murray, a red-shirt junior and third-year starter, has experienced receivers. He is completing 66.3 percent of his passes with 10 TDs and two interceptions.
It’ll be interesting to see how 370-pound UT defensive tackle Daniel McCullers weighs on Georgia’s ground game. He is essentially coming off a bye week due to Akron’s quick-pass attack.
Talented Tennessee sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson could slow the Georgia freshmen, too. Johnson grew up 30 minutes from Georgia in Gainesville, and wasn’t coveted by Richt’s program.
In fact, after settling a personal score with Vanderbilt and an unsettling personality on the schedule next week at South Carolina, you wonder if Georgia might overlook the Vols. As silly as it sounds, it’s not inconceivable, especially with the Vols’ recent history of big-game misfires.
“This football team’s not gonna be held hostage for the things that have gone on over the last four years at Tennessee, and the last two years that I’ve been here,” Dooley said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve played four teams. We’ve played a lot of good quarters of football. We’ve had a couple of quarters where we didn’t play so good, and you know, we just go week to week. And I think our team’s gonna be confident and I expect them (UT players) to play their best.”
Following Georgia on UT’s schedule are ranked opponents Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina, and the Vols haven’t beaten South Carolina, Georgia or Alabama since Lane Kiffin’s black-and-orange clad team beat the Gamecocks in 2009.
“And you know, that’s kind of our next step — is we’re gonna have to go out there and perform,” Dooley said, “and beat one of these teams if that’s where we want to be.”