Tennessee faces Georgia looking to take control of SEC East
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Tennessee has a chance to take control of the SEC East on the first Saturday of October.
The No. 11 Volunteers already knocked off one of the leading contenders in the division race, ending more than a decade of misery against Florida with a rousing second-half comeback.
Now, they'll get a shot at No. 25 Georgia between the hedges.
If Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) can prevail against the No. 25 Bulldogs (3-1, 1-1), the Vols will not only be atop the standings but hold a tiebreaker edge over the two teams most likely to derail their hopes of reaching the league championship game for the first time since 2007.
Since the SEC went to divisional play in 1992, Tennessee has swept Florida and Georgia only three times. It's been a dozen long years since the Vols last pulled it off, a gloomy era in which they went through three coaching changes, endured 11 straight losses to the Gators, and only managed a 4-7 mark against the Bulldogs.
But coach Butch Jones and the guys in orange sent a clear signal last week that things have changed on Rocky Top. After falling behind Florida 21-3 at halftime, Tennessee ripped off five touchdowns in the second half for a 38-31 victory over its longtime nemesis.
''It was definitely an emotional win,'' safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. ''It also took a lot of passion, but we realize you don't win a season out of one game. It takes a lot of games to put it all together.''
Georgia is in a bit of desperation mode after a dismal performance at Ole Miss. The Bulldogs trailed by 31 at halftime and 45 in the third quarter before putting up two meaningless touchdowns that did nothing to ease to sting of a crushing 45-14 defeat .
Close calls against the Nicholls and Missouri raised doubts about Georgia. Total domination by Ole Miss on both sides of the line ended the honeymoon for first-year coach Kirby Smart.
''We've got to show improvement at pretty much every position,'' Smart said bluntly.
Here are some things to look for Saturday at Sanford Stadium:
FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL: Tennessee has been rather careless with the ball but amazingly fortunate over the first four games. The Vols have fumbled 12 times but it hasn't really hurt them, since they have recovered all but one of the loose balls. Meanwhile, their opponents have coughed it up eight times, with Tennessee managing to grab six of those. The Vols can't count on the ball continuing to bounce their way, so they need to do a better job securing it.
AILING CHUBB: Georgia running back Nick Chubb was questionable after going out against Ole Miss with a sprained ankle. The Bulldogs still have plenty of backfield options, including Sony Michel and freshmen Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien, but the line has struggled to create the sort of dominant rushing attack Smart wants. Tennessee has its own injury concerns. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. (high ankle sprain) and cornerback Cam Sutton (fractured right ankle) are both out, and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin's status is uncertain after he missed most of the last two games with a shoulder injury.
SLOW STARTERS: Tennessee has been outscored 34-10 in the first quarter and 60-44 in the first half, leaving the Vols with double-digit deficits in three games. Georgia has also struggled to get going this season. The Bulldogs have been outscored 27-21 in the first quarter and 68-45 by halftime. Can one of these teams finally get off to a quick start?
SLIPPERY FINGERS: Georgia dropped a bunch of passes in its last game, which it can't afford to do with a freshman quarterback (Jacob Eason) who figures to face another week of intense pressure from a Tennessee line led by Derek Barnett. ''Dropped passes are kind of like hidden yards,'' Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. ''It's like being a baseball pitcher and you know they're hitting the ball against you, but they're hitting it right at your infielders.''
REVENGE FOR TUTTLE?: Tennessee defensive tackle Shy Tuttle broke a fibula and tore an ankle ligament last year while being blocked by Georgia center Brandon Kublanow. While speaking to the Knoxville Quarterback Club earlier this season, Jones described Tuttle's season-ending injury as ''unacceptable.'' The sophomore wasn't made available to reporters this week, and Tennessee's coaches and players downplayed any additional motivation Tuttle might have against Kublanow and the Bulldogs.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee contributed to this report.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .
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