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Thursday, October 9, 2008

10 Questions: UGA vs. UT

It's been a couple weeks since the Bulldogs last took the field, and the memories of that Alabama loss are still lingering. The opponent this time around is Tennessee, a struggling team with a head coach on the hot seat -- but the same team that has given Georgia its worst beatings in each of the past two seasons.

So, what will be the keys to a Georgia revival against the Vols?

1.) Is this the same Tennessee team we've seen the past two years?

The Vols are 0-2 in the SEC and 2-3 overall. Phil Fulmer is coaching his way out of a job, and the Tennessee offense has been brutal. The missing ingredient? Well, it could be Erik Ainge, the Vols' veteran QB who shredded Georgia the past two years. UT is expected to start sophomore Nick Stephens -- who completed 10-of-17 passes for 156 yards and a TD in his first career start a week ago against Northern Illinois. Jonathan Crompton could see action, too. He was benched after Tennessee's 1-3 start.

It's just as likely (maybe more likely) that Tennessee's missing offensive ingredient so far has been departed O-coordinator David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe, who left after last season to become head coach at Duke, had beaten Georgia 10 straight times as either the QB coach or offensive coordinator at UT.

2.) Can Georgia cut down on the penalties?

For the first five games of their season, the Bulldogs were the most penalized team in the country. In 10 of its past 11 games, Georgia has racked up at least 70 yards in penalties, and it is averaging more than 10 flags per game this season.

Head coach Mark Richt said he had been hesitant to push back too hard on his overly penalized players for fear of curbing their aggressiveness, but that ended this week. At practice, when a flag is thrown, push-ups are done on the spot or laps are run immediately after.

"I'm wearing them out," Richt said. "I'm wearing them out physically. Before I was a little reluctant to make such a strong point, I was concerned about some aggressive play and all that kind of thing, but my strategy and my thoughts were wrong. The penalties have not slowed down and have cost us. I did a poor job on the front end of this."

3.) How does Georgia respond to the Alabama loss?

If the second half of the game against the Tide was any indication, this shouldn't be a big concern for Georgia. The Dawgs came out and played well against a team that had manhandled them in the first half and nearly completed a comeback bid in the fourth quarter before finally falling 41-30.

Of course, they were playing for the win then. Now, the dream of that undefeated season -- and potentially a national title -- are gone. While Georgia's players consistently said they were focused on the next game and not the big picture when they were the toast of the country in the preseason, it's fair to wonder if having some of those dreams vanish will affect their performance this week. Several writers and some players have even wondered where the energy is this week, particularly with a fierce division rival on deck.

Part of the problem could be Tennessee's poor performance thus far. Georgia is a 12-point favorite in the game, and little is expected of the Vols. Of course, the same could have been said last year, and now Tennessee is basically playing for its coach's job with its back against the wall. An 0-3 SEC start would likely be the death knell for both Fulmer and the Vols' season. After the Alabama loss, however, perhaps it should be Georgia playing with its back against the wall. The Dawgs have nearly as much to lose.

4.) What's going to happen at tight end?

Bruce Figgins could get the start -- his first of the season -- despite a shoulder injury that will require surgery. Last week, Figgins didn't know if he would play this week, but he has practiced fully and looks to be a go for the game. Beyond that, who knows?

Redshirt freshman Aron White has looked very good in practice this week with a potential starting gig within his grasp. Richt said White has vastly improved his blocking, and White was already a good pass-catcher. With incumbent starter Tripp Chandler battling a shoulder injury and early season struggles and Figgins likely to head for surgery and a medical redshirt next week, White has a great chance to establish himself as a key cog in the Dawgs' offense.

In an unlikely side note, former defensive lineman/former right tackle/former left tackle Kiante Tripp has spent the past three weeks practicing at tight end, too. Richt said the move is semi-permanent, and the idea of the athletically gifted Tripp playing a roll in the passing game is intriguing. He has an Antonio Gates body type and, like Gates, was an accomplished basketball player. Tripp's hefty size (he's at 290 pounds now) makes it unlikely the transition will be a smooth one this season, but if he makes some strides and can slim down over the offseason, it will be interesting to see what Georgia does with him.

5.) Can the D deal without Dannell?

Preseason All-SEC middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe will not play this week after injuring his knee in the first quarter against Alabama. Akeem Dent and Darryl Gamble met with intermittent success as Ellerbe's replacements the rest of the game, but it was Dent's roughing the passer flag that may have been the early momentum swing that cost Georgia any shot at a 'W.'

Gamble will get the start at Mike, while Dent and Darius Dewberry will likely split time at Sam. Dewberry has failed to make much noise since returning from a two-game suspension, but will have to step up against Tennessee's solid running game.

At Will, Rennie Curran may finish this game with 20 tackles. In fact, I heard somewhere that Superman wears Rennie Curran pajamas. Actually, each of Rennie Curran's biceps has its own congressman. In fact, Rennie Curran does not have a "CTRL" button on his computer because Rennie Curran is always in control. Rennie Curran is a beast in the classroom, too. He doesn't read his text books though. He just stares them down until he gets the information he wants. During the game, Rennie Curran plans to donate blood to the Red Cross -- but it won't be his own.

6.) Will Willie Martinez decide to blitz more?

Everyone's favorite whipping boy after Georgia's loss was Coach Willie. The big complaint? Martinez refused to play aggressively enough to slow down Alabama's John Parker Wilson, who was nearly flawless in the passing game. The real problem, however, was that Wilson got the ball off so quickly -- often on a three-step drop -- that the pass rush really never had time to get pressure, and the blitz was ineffective.

That result was surprising, as Wilson likely played the best game of his career, but he's a veteran and knows how to read a defense. That won't be the case when the Dawgs line up against Tennessee. The Vols' QBs have struggled mightily this season, and neither have a lot of experience. This is the perfect opportunity for Martinez to bring the blitz and force Stephens and/or Crompton into mistakes.

7.) What will Brannan Southerland bring to the offense?

No disrespect to Shaun Chapas, who did an admirable job filling in for Southerland the past five games, but Brannan brings an added dimension of experience and leadership to the offense that Chapas doesn't have.

Georgia has struggled in short yardage, and Southerland is one of the nation's best in that role. The Bulldogs' offensive line is young and has had difficulty opening running lanes. There may not be a better run-blocking fullback in the country than Southerland. Bottom line: Chapas is a good player, Southerland is a great one.

Brannan returned to action for the first time since undergoing a second foot surgery against Alabama, but he was limited to special teams. He'll likely split playing time with Chapas this week, but both Southerland and Richt said he would not be limited at all.

8.) Can the Bulldogs run the ball this week?

I tend to throw much of the stats out the window from the Alabama game. The fact is, things went sideways so quickly, that there's really not a lot you can take from the game other than that Alabama was the better team. I'd argue the Tide weren't THAT much better, but they caught some early breaks (and Georgia made some early mistakes) and the Bulldogs were completely one-dimensional after the first quarter.

This week, Georgia needs to establish the run early, particularly with Tennessee's secondary being its biggest strength. If Knowshon Moreno can find some running room -- he's coming off an elbow injury he says has fully healed, by the way -- it might force the Vols' exceptional safeties, Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley, to sneak up to play the run a bit more, thus opening things up for Matthew Stafford and the passing game. If the Bulldogs can control the ground game, win the time-of-possession battle, then force Tennessee to play catch-up, this game should be an easy one. If they chuck the ball all over the field early as they've done the past two games, Tennessee has a real chance to win for the third straight year.

9.) Will the Dawgs look ahead?

If I told you before the season that it might be a real concern that Georgia will be looking past Tennessee toward its showdown with Vanderbilt, you would have assumed I'd lost my mind. That could be the case, however, particularly if the Dawgs jump out to an early lead on Tennessee. Remember, Georgia led the Vols 24-7 with 4:50 to play in the first half, only to lose 51-33. With the general consensus this week being that Tennessee is toast, Georgia cannot risk losing focus early. The Dawgs need to deliver the knockout punch and not let Tennessee hang around.

10.) Can Georgia stay healthy?

Georgia cannot afford to lose this game if it wants any shot at the SEC East. That's priority No. 1. But a close second is this: Georgia cannot afford to lose any more players. Against Alabama, Moreno banged up his elbow, Kris Durham sprained his ankle and is out for the foreseeable future, Ellerbe hurt his knee and Chandler injured his shoulder. Add to that the injuries to Jeff Owens, Quintin Banks, Southerland, Trinton Sturdivant, Rod Battle, Kenneth Harris, Tavarres King, Jeremy Lomax and suspensions to Clint Boling and Dewberry, and Georgia has routinely been without key players. The Bulldogs were blessed with good depth, but even that is becoming incredibly thin. So yes, Georgia needs a win, but ideally, they need to do it with all of their players walking off the field under their own power.

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