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Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (11) runs for yardage as he is tackled by Tennessee's Brian Randolph (37) and LaDarrell McNeil (33) during the 2013 Georgia win.
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Brian Randolph

TENNESSEE (2-1, 0-0 SEC) AT NO. 12 GEORGIA (2-1, 0-1)

Noon * Sanford Stadium, Athens, Ga. * ESPN/106.5 or 102.3 FM

THE MATCHUP

Keep an eye on first-down production in today's game.

Georgia's top three tailbacks -- Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb -- all average more than 9 yards per carry. As it did against Oklahoma, Tennessee certainly will gear its defense to stop Georgia's powerful rushing attack, second in the SEC at 304 yards per game, and force quarterback Hutson Mason to make plays throwing the ball. If Georgia is eating up yards on the ground and staying in front of the chains, it will either encourage the Dawgs to keep running it or open up the play-action passing game. The Vols top the SEC in third-down defense, too.

In the loss to the Sooners, Tennessee faced 11 plays of third-and-10 or longer, and that's a bad formula for any offensive line, especially one as young as Tennessee's. The Vols must find ways to stay out of those situations.

ONE TO WATCH

It's time for you to step up, Josh Malone. The freshman wide receiver, a former five-star recruit that had Georgia among his finalists before picking Tennessee, has quietly performed well in his first three games (five catches for 56 yards) while showing progress in practice.

With Von Pearson and Josh Smith, two of Tennessee's top receivers, out for the game with ankle injuries, the 6-foot-3, 204-pound Malone will see his opportunities increase and possibly could start alongside Marquez North and Pig Howard. At full strength, Tennessee's receiving corps could really challenge Georgia's iffy secondary. The shorthanded Vols needs to target the North more than they have so far this season, but Malone will need to rise to the occasion and produce for the Vols, too.

"He's grown every week," Vols receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. "He's gotten better every week. And that's all I ask."

IN THE END

Tennessee coach Butch Jones boasts an impressive record coming off open dates (9-2), and the lone win against a ranked team in his career -- the Vols' upset of South Carolina last season -- followed an open date. After slipping up at South Carolina two weeks ago, Georgia knows it can't afford to drop to 0-2 in the SEC if it wants to stay in control of its destiny in a wide open SEC East Division race.

Defensively, aside from some coverage busts and missed tackles, Tennessee did an admirable job against Oklahoma, an offense that's putting up similar numbers to the Bulldogs. The Sooners, though, don't have anybody as good as Todd Gurley. The Vols are still too turnover-prone as road underdogs against ranked teams and too green up front offensively to counter that.

PREDICTION: GEORGIA 33, TENNESSEE 20

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's last encounter with Georgia was one of those football games neither side soon will forget.

Well, at least until the Volunteers and 12th-ranked Bulldogs kick the ball off shortly after noon at Sanford Stadium today.

Leading up to the 44th meeting between the Southeastern Conference border rivals, Georgia's dramatic 34-31 overtime win at Tennessee last October came up for discussion quite a bit, at least in Knoxville.

"I just remember we had a lot of passion and a lot of emotion coming out," Vols safety Brian Randolph said. "Everybody was excited to play. We were in our gray uniforms against a great team. When we competed with them and just lost it there at the end, we feel like we should have won.

"We never like to lose around here, so I'd say it was a bad day, actually, because we lost. But it was good to show everyone around the nation that we could compete with such a great team."

For Tennessee, last season's Georgia game featured a second-half comeback powered by Marquez North's toe-tapping touchdown catch and the iconic photograph that captured it, a blocked punt that blew the roof off Neyland Stadium, three fourth-and-1 conversions and a devastating fumble by receiver Pig Howard in overtime.

For the Bulldogs, quarterback Aaron Murray orchestrated a last-minute drive that ended in a tying touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten with five seconds left, but injuries to tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett aversely impacted the rest of Georgia's season.

None of that, of course, will impact today's game.

The past three meetings in the series were decided by a combined 18 points, but the six before that were all decided by more than 12.

"We would have liked the turnout to be different last year and the year before that in Athens," Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley said. "We would have liked the end result to be different, but this is a new year. We're still going to have to go out and play. Just because we played them close the past couple of years doesn't mean we're going to play them close this year.

"We've still got to go out there and execute and do our deal."

The biggest changes for Georgia are at quarterback, where fifth-year senior Hutson Mason has succeeded Murray, and tailback, where Todd Gurley is back after missing last season's game due to injury and Sony Michel and Nick Chubb headline a freshman class that's accounted for 41 percent of the Bulldogs' offensive output through three games.

The differences are more drastic at Tennessee, which has played 22 true freshmen and 34 debutants this season.

Only 13 players still on Tennessee's travel roster played in the Vols' 51-44 loss in Athens two years ago, and only six of those players -- Howard, defensive tackle Jordan Williams, linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt and defensive backs Justin Coleman and LaDarrell McNeil -- have started for Tennessee this season.

Butch Jones, the Vols' second-year coach, joked that most of his team watched last season's Georgia game from the Neyland Stadium stands as visiting recruits.

"It was very loud and an awesome atmosphere, as always at Neyland Stadium," said freshman safety Todd Kelly, one of those then-recruits. "It was a great time and competitive game. Georgia's a really good team, so we're going to have to go in and play our best ball.

"They went out and played hard, like every team should. They played a competitive game. That's what we're going to try to do Saturday."

Jones suggested how Tennessee played against Georgia last season could help his team's confidence today, but the tone he used made it sound like he didn't even believe that.

"I thought it was a step forward, but again, we came up short, and at the end of the day it's all about winning football games," he said.

"I thought it did help in our overall development because I thought our team showed some perseverance. I thought we battled adversity. I thought we made some critical plays, some fourth-and-1 plays, at critical stages of the game to put us in a situation to win the football game.

"This football team is brand new, over half of it, and it's the same thing with Georgia."

Perhaps that will create a new set of memories.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

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