published Saturday, September 29th, 2012

Vols 'motivated' as 2-TD underdogs

Tennessee sophomore tight end Mychal Rivera (81) walks off the field during the Vols game against North Carolina State.
Tennessee sophomore tight end Mychal Rivera (81) walks off the field during the Vols game against North Carolina State.
Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Tennessee (3-1, 0-1 SEC) at No. 5 Georgia (4-0, 2-0)

3:30 p.m. * Sanford Stadium in Athens * WDEF/106.5 FM

The matchup

Expect Tennessee's linebackers to key first and foremost on Georgia tailback Todd Gurley. Though only a freshman, the 6-foot-1, 218-pound former four-star recruit is averaging a gaudy nine yards per carry, while Keith Marshall, his quicker and slightly smaller freshman counterpart, is averaging six himself. Gurley seeks out contact when he reaches the second level, and the Vols' linebackers must keep him from reaching the secondary and turn big plays into bigger players while also limiting the effectiveness of the Bulldogs' lethal play-action pass game.

"He's young, but he's special," Tennessee cornerback coach Derrick Ansley said of Gurley. "He's got some special talent and ability. All the teams you play are going to have those thumpers back there. We've got to do a good job of rallying to the ball, gang tackling and making them snap it again."

One to watch

It's Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray for the second consecutive week. After his body language and response to the Florida game took criticism, the Vols' junior overcame an early interception that was returned for a touchdown to throw for 401 yards and four touchdowns. But that was Akron, and this is Georgia. Bray said the Vols "disappeared" and "weren't ourselves" in the 20-minute collapse against Florida, and Tennessee's mental fortitude certainly will be tested by the environment and a Georgia team that's clicking.

"The whole team kind of met up and talked about how we couldn't let down and crawl in a shell and hide from it," Bray said. "We had to come out and be leaders, and everyone needed to step up.

"Once you do it in the game, everyone gets the confidence. Hopefully we can do it again."

In the end

Is Tennessee ready mentally to put together a full 60 minutes? Will it even matter against a Georgia team loaded with talent on both sides of the ball? The Vols' major concern is their defense's susceptibility to allow big plays against confident quarterback Aaron Murray, a ground game that's averaging nearly 250 yards per game and the nation's top team in plays of 20 or more yards.

The Bulldogs' front, especially disruptive linebacker Jarvis Jones, is also a concern for Tennessee. Defensively Tennessee must dig deep, force turnovers and limit Georgia's big plays to give itself a shot, and Bray, in better or worse, must take leadership of the Vols' offense with his arm and his attitude. Until Tennessee wins a big SEC game like this, it's hard to predict it to happen.

Prediction

Georgia 35, Tennessee 24

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee last beat a team ranked in the Top 25 in 2009, when 21st-ranked South Carolina's Gamecocks left a rainy, cold Halloween night in Knoxville as losers to the black-clad Volunteers.

You have to go back three more years to find a previous road win against a ranked team.

That came in 2006 against Georgia in Athens on the same field where Tennessee faces the fifth-ranked Bulldogs as a two-touchdown underdog this afternoon.

"Coming in into these big games, I always feel like we're the underdogs," Vols tight end Mychal Rivera said, "and I'm just motivated to get out there and show these people that we're better than what they think we are. I know the team goes out there and we have a chip on our shoulder. We want to prove to people that we're a better team than what's written out there."

Tennessee already blew one chance to do that earlier this season in the collapsing home loss to Florida. Third-year coach Derek Dooley's message to his team since that night has been that it was what happened and not the Vols' true identity. Two weeks later, Tennessee can prove that.

Georgia won't make it easy, though. The Bulldogs are eyeing a big matchup in the Southeastern Conference East Division race against South Carolina next week and perhaps even bigger things beyond. The Bulldogs have a seasoned quarterback playing at a high level, two dynamic freshman tailbacks and a defense with four players in ESPN analyst Todd McShay's top-32 list of players eligible for the 2013 NFL draft.

While Tennessee linebacker Herman Lathers said the Vols don't pay attention to any outside predictions, the senior and his teammates know beating Georgia will be tough.

"We know it's a big hyped-up game," Lathers said. "They're the No. 5 team in the country and it's going to be a big game for us and a big test for us.

"Georgia's a good team. They practice just like we do. They've got great players just like we do. They're going to make plays; we're going to make plays; but we've just got to make more plays than they do."

Adding to Tennessee's challenge is the environment, as the Vols will make their 2012 road debut today. Most of the Vols' offensive players, excluding receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and left tackle Antonio Richardson, played at Sanford Stadium in 2010, when a 1-4 Georgia team pounded the flat Vols 41-14. Most of Tennessee's defenders played at Florida, Alabama and Arkansas last season.

"I think the good news is most of our guys have been in these environments," Dooley said. "It shouldn't be as overwhelming as it's been in the past. At least I hope it isn't.

"You've got to learn to enjoy playing in that kind of environment."

It's the first road test for Tennessee's new up-tempo no-huddle offense as well, but offensive coordinator Jim Chaney hopes that since the style is predicated on hand motions and nonverbal signals, it won't be affected too much.

"I'll answer that question next Wednesday when we speak," he said. "We'll find out. The communication, so much is signal based. I would like to think there shouldn't be a heck of a lot of difference, but obviously when you've got a bunch of people yelling at you and being mean to you, it affects you sometimes."

Said quarterback Tyler Bray: "We just need to put four quarters together this week and we'll be fine.

"We know we've got to go out and every week and compete. We're going to play against the top teams every week ... so we've got to go out there and compete every week."

This week, though, will require him and the Vols to put it all together. They have shown some glimpses, but the second-half collapse against Florida and the defensive struggles have jumped out as negatives. Even Tennessee's best shot could result in a Georgia win.

Yet the Vols left for Athens on Friday afternoon aiming for a win.

"They're one of the top teams in the nation," Bray said. "For us to win this, it would be great. A lot of guys have the right mindset. I think we're going to go in and do what we've been coached to do.

"This week we don't mind being the underdog. That just motivates us. We don't too much worry about anything on the outside that'll affect us. We're just all going to stick together and focus."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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