Alabama proved last weekend that slowing down Nick Chubb and Georgia’s running game is the key to beating the Bulldogs. But is Tennessee’s defense stout enough to follow that blueprint?
We’ll find out on Saturday at Neyland Stadium, which was where Georgia’s 2013 season went sideways in the teams’ last meeting there. The Bulldogs came in ranked sixth nationally, but left with injuries to tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley -- both season ending -- as well as wideout Michael Bennett and punter Colin Barber. Georgia survived with an overtime win, but it was just one more installment in what has become a wacky series.
Each of the past four UT-UGA games have been decided by one score, and we could see more craziness Saturday. No. 19 Georgia (4-1, 2-1 SEC) is favored to beat the Volunteers (2-3, 0-2) by a field goal, but ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Tennessee a 52 percent chance to win.
Here are some stats to keep in mind with an assist from ESPN’s Stats & Information group:
The Crimson Tide’s stout defense wasn’t allowing much room to run, forcing starter Lambert and backup Ramsey to throw more than we’ve come to expect from recent Georgia offenses -- and the results speak for themselves. Lambert finished 10-for-24 for 86 yards and an interception. Ramsey was 1-for-6 for 20 yards and two interceptions, one of which Eddie Jackson returned 50 yards for a touchdown.
But that was Alabama, not Tennessee. The Vols are last in the SEC in total defense (414.0 ypg), second to last in pass defense (242.4 ypg), 11th against the run (171.6 ypg) and 12th in scoring defense (24.6 ppg).
It would be understandable if Georgia’s quarterbacks took a confidence hit last week -- Lambert’s Total Quarterback Rating last week was 6 after entering with a 90 on a 1-100 scale -- but Tennessee has to apply enough pressure on Lambert to exploit any issues. With just eight sacks in five games, the Vols haven’t been able to do that.
Slowing Chubb: It would be helpful if the Vols manage to slow Bulldogs running back Chubb, but even against Alabama, he extended his streak of 100-yard games to 13, the longest streak in school history (although 83 of his 146 yards came on a late touchdown run).
Georgia’s star sophomore is no fun to tackle. But he ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game (149), with 65 percent of his rushing yardage (482 of 745 yards) coming before he even makes contact with the first defender. Credit Georgia’s offensive line for helping Chubb stay clean before he reaches the second level of most defenses.
That will provide a unique challenge for Tennessee, which ranks 87th nationally in rushing yardage allowed before contact (404 of 858 rushing yards allowed). The Vols have some star power -- linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive end Derek Barnett among others -- on its injury-riddled defense, but John Jancek’s bunch will have its work cut out in slowing Chubb and Sony Michel.
This game will feature some of the SEC’s top running back talent -- Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are also one of the conference’s best backfield duos -- so slowing down the run will be the first priority for both defenses.
Big point totals: This rivalry has been marked by high-scoring games in recent years. The winner has scored at least 34 points in five of the past six meetings, and the last three years have all seen video game point totals.
Georgia’s 51-44 win in a 2012 shootout set the tone, but the Bulldogs’ 34-31 win in 2013 and 35-32 victory last year were in the same category of wildness.
Oddly enough, Tennessee is 11-2 under Butch Jones when it scores at least 30 points in a game, but both of those losses came against Georgia. The Vols are 3-14 under Jones when they fail to crack the 30-point barrier.
This is also a legacy game for Jones. The Vols are off to a disappointing start and suffered soul-crushing losses to Florida and Oklahoma. Jones is 1-12 against Associated Press-ranked teams at Tennessee, and the overall program is 2-30 against ranked teams since Phillip Fulmer’s departure after the 2008 season. Jones’ staff has built plenty of momentum on the recruiting trail, but they are still waiting for it to fully translate to the field.