Tennessee coach Derek Dooley quickly narrows scope when there’s talk of the SEC East being wide open.
Dooley’s Volunteers (0-1, 3-1) and Georgia (2-1, 3-2) enter tonight’s game in Knoxville (7 p.m., ESPN2) like every other East team — with at least one league loss.
But Tennessee hasn’t had much of a role in any perceived parity. In 11â„2 seasons Dooley is a combined 0-4 against Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, and all losses were by double digits.
Beating Georgia — the Vols are two-point underdogs — would be a significant step for Dooley’s young program, even if it’s still a year or two away from serious title aspirations.
“I think the last thing that we need to be talking about is Atlanta,” Dooley said, “because I mean we need to go win a conference game.”
The closest thing to a quality win UT has under Dooley was a rout of Ole Miss last year.
Georgia opened 0-2 thanks to home losses to Boise State (35-21) and South Carolina (45-42). Its SEC wins were a pair of 14-point decisions against Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs have a talented dual-threat quarterback in redshirt sophomore Aaron Murray. The 6-foot-1, 211-pounder has completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,100 yards, 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. Murray passed for four TDs and a two-point conversion against South Carolina.
But Georgia coach Mark Richt sounds like he’s been even more impressed with UT 6-foot-6 sophomore Tyler Bray, who has passed for 1,328 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 68.5 percent of his passes.
“Whew, he’s a very, very smooth guy,” Richt said. “You know, I’ve coached quarterbacks for 25 years and, you know, you can tell when a guy’s got it. I mean he really has a tremendous – I don’t know – calm about him.
“He’s got great fundamentals. He’s deadly accurate, and he’s effortless when he does it. … If he keeps going like he’s going he’ll be a big-time NFL ballplayer, in my opinion.”
Of course, Murray is most likely to be complemented by a running game. While Tennessee has struggled to run the ball most of the season, including against two of its non-conference underdogs, Bulldogs freshman Isaiah Crowell is averaging 103 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry.The 5-foot-11, 215-pounder was named SEC freshman of the week after gaining 104 yards on 22 carries Saturday against Mississippi State. He rushed for 147 yards against Ole Miss and 118 against South Carolina.
“He’s got the size and he’s got good body quickness, so you never really get a clean hit on him,” Dooley said. “He can break tackles and he’s got speed.”
In its first season without A.J. Green, Georgia is led by receiver Malcolm Mitchell (22 catches, 312 yards, three TDs). Tight end Orson Charles (16 catches, 256 yards) leads the Bulldogs in yards per catch (16.0) and TD receptions (four).
“If you’ve got a bad tight end who can’t run, you can do some things to help you on the wideouts a little more or help you on the run game a little more,” Dooley said. “But when you’ve got a vertical threat, a guy who can make plays down the field, it changes you a little bit.”
Special teams could be key. Georgia has preseason All-Americas in senior punter Drew Butler and senior kicker Blair Walsh, and another senior, Brandon Boykin, has returned three of his four career kickoff returns for touchdowns at least 100 yards.
Georgia will be without linebacker Cornelius Washington, who leads the team with 31â„2 sacks. Washington was suspended after being arrested and charged for DUI early Sunday morning.
Beating Tennessee would be a big step for the Bulldogs, who don’t have to play LSU, Alabama or Arkansas, and get banged-up Florida after a bye week and Auburn at home between New Mexico State and Kentucky.
“We’ve still got to figure out how to go beat a good football team,” Dooley said, “and we’ve got a good one coming in Saturday.”
Notes: Richt’s next victory will be the 100th of his career. “Who knows if you’d even coach a hundred, let alone win a hundred,” Richt said. “I think there’s a pretty good chance we’ll get a hundred sometime this year. I hope it’s Saturday.” … Bray is seventh nationally in passing efficiency (176.05) and 13th in total offense (319.75), and leads the SEC in each catagory. … The home team has won four straight in the UT-Georgia series. … Dooley’s parents plan to watch the game from his home in Knoxville.