ATHENS — What a difference a year makes.
When Georgia was getting ready to play Tennessee about this time last season, coach Mark Richt was still feeling uncomfortable heat related to his his job performance. The Bulldogs were 3-2 at the time, had lost the only meaningful games they had played (to Boise State and South Carolina) and were headed to Knoxville, Tenn., a place where they lost the previous two times by the combined score of 80-33.
A year later, Richt’s team has won 14 of its past 16 games, and the pressure is off. The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0 SEC) are two-touchdown favorites, and it’s the Volunteers and — coach Derek Dooley in particular — who are feeling the heat.
Dooley, an Athens native with the familiar last name, is in his third season as Tennessee’s head coach. He comes to Sanford Stadium in search of his first victory in 12 tries against ranked opponents. The scuttlebutt on Rocky Top is that he needs to score one pretty soon.
Such is life in the rugged SEC. Beloved today, beleaguered tomorrow. It’s why the league’s coaching fraternity is as tight as it is. That’s especially true for Dooley and Richt, whose very presence in this game Saturday can be traced to the same man — Vince Dooley.
“I think we all know we have a job to do and our highest responsibility is to our own programs,” Richt said of being friends with Derek. “When we were struggling, I didn’t expect anybody to do me a favor. I expected them to prepare their teams the best they could and do everything they could within the rules to win the game. That’s our posture every week, whether we’re having positive noise or negative noise.”
The noise is decidedly negative in Tennessee at the moment. The complaint about the Vols (3-1, 0-1) has been their inability to win games such as Saturday’s. Their latest attempt at dumping the ranked-opponent gorilla was Sept. 15 against then-No. 17 Florida, and that didn’t go well. The Gators surged in the second half for a 37-20 victory, their eighth in a row over Tennessee.
That set the Tennessee fan base to grumbling once again, and there isn’t much optimism as the Vols enter the Georgia game. Dating to 2008, Tennessee is 1-18 against ranked opponents, with 15 of those losses coming by double figures.
“Derek’s certainly on the hot seat,” said Jimmy Hyams, a Knoxville talk-show host who has covered the Vols for radio and newspapers since 1985. “Being the son of a longtime coach, he knows it and understands it. He realizes he’s got to win to keep his job.”
Suffice it to say, beating a top-5 Georgia team on its home turf would go a long way to salving the situation.
“That’s our next step,” said Dooley, who’s 14-15 with the Vols. “We’re going to have to go out there and perform and beat one of these teams if that’s where we want to be.”
Tennessee has a history of breaking the Bulldogs’ hearts in games such as this. On Monday, Richt reminded the team of what happened in 2004. The Bulldogs were coming off a resounding 45-16 victory over defending national champion LSU at Sanford Stadium and had just been bestowed a No. 3 national ranking when an unranked Tennessee team showed up with a freshman quarterback. Georgia was left dumbfounded as 19-14 losers.
This year’s game would seem equally as dangerous. While beating Vanderbilt can’t be equated with knocking off the defending national champions, the game was an emotional contest, and Georgia played a near-perfect game in scoring a 48-3 victory. Meanwhile, Tennessee comes in a week before the Bulldogs’ highly anticipated matchup against No. 6 South Carolina in Columbia.
Is it possible that Georgia is having to guard against a letdown versus a traditional rival such as Tennessee?
“Outside [the program] people may think that,” senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “But I think everybody [on the team] has pinpointed this game as one we have to have because it’s the next game. We’re really focusing hard on what we have to do to win.”
To win it, the Bulldogs will have to contain Tennessee’s 6-foot-6 quarterback Tyler Bray and his band of big-play receivers. The Vols come in with the SEC’s top passing attack at 341 yards per game.
But Georgia can play a little offense, too. The Bulldogs have averaged an SEC-best 47.5 points per game. So expect some fireworks in Sanford Stadium — and a Tennessee team desperate to score an upset.
“This is probably the best team they’ve had in a while,” Dooley said of Georgia. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
As both coaches can attest, it always is.