ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — No. 12 Georgia begins a stretch of seven straight Southeastern Conference games with a team that seemed to take all the steam out of the Bulldogs a year ago.
They’re looking for a much smoother performance against Tennessee this time around.
Georgia (2-1, 0-1 SEC) still has hopes of winning the conference title despite a loss at South Carolina, while Tennessee (2-1, 0-0) is a once-mighty program trying to regain its swagger after four straight losing seasons.
The Volunteers have dropped 20 straight road games against ranked teams, most recently falling to No. 4 Oklahoma 34-10 two weeks ago.
“Just to go down to Georgia and experience a game like this is pretty surreal,” freshman safety Todd Kelly Jr. said, “but at the same time you’ve got to be focused and go in with the right mindset.”
For the Bulldogs, the hope is to avoid the sort of nail-biting game — and major injuries — that marked the 2013 meeting in Knoxville.
Georgia needed a touchdown pass with 5 seconds remaining to force overtime, then got a huge break when Tennessee fumbled just short of the goal line on what looked like an apparent TD. After the turnover, the Bulldogs kicked a field goal for a 34-31 victory.
The triumph took a heavy toll, however. Running back Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley both went down with season-ending injuries, while receiver Michael Bennett has to sit out the next two games with a less-serious ailment.
Georgia would lose four of its last eight games for a disappointing 8-5 finish.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a team,” center David Andrews said. “But now the tables have turned. We’re on our home field, and we have a healthy team. We just need to go out there and take care of business.”
The Bulldogs aren’t quite at full strength. Receiver Malcolm Mitchell is still recovering from a knee injury, while Scott-Wesley is completing what appears to be a four-game suspension for a marijuana arrest, though coach Mark Richt won’t confirm it.
But Georgia is well-stocked at running back, led by Heisman Trophy contender Todd Gurley and a pair of stellar freshmen, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. The Bulldogs rank second in the SEC with an average of 304 yards rushing per game, allowing quarterback Hutson Mason to largely play it safe with the passing game.
“They have a mentality,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “They’re looking to dominate their opponent on each and every snap.”
Gurley had only six carries in last week’s 66-0 blowout of Troy, so he should be ready to go against the Vols. He’s averaging a staggering 9.8 yards every time he’s handed the ball and has a 100-yard kickoff return for the touchdown as well. Michel is at 10.3 yards per carry, while Chubb checks in with a 9.5-yard average.
“Todd Gurley’s one of the best I’ve seen in a very long time, but I think their entire running back group is one of the best — if not the best — in the country when you look at it from top to bottom,” Jones said.
Here are some other things to watch for in Saturday’s game between the hedges:
MASON MANAGES THE GAME: Georgia’s fifth-year senior quarterback is averaging only 139.7 yards passing each game, but that’s just fine with Richt. Mason is completing 71 percent of his attempts and has yet to throw an interception, just the sort of game management the Bulldogs want as long as they’re piling up big yards on the ground. Also, until Mitchell and Scott-Wesley return, Georgia doesn’t have much of a deep threat.
YOUTHFUL VOLS: Tennessee has used 22 true freshmen already, more than any other FBS program. Running back Jalen Hurd (48 carries, 209 yards) is among as many six freshmen who could start on offense against the Bulldogs. “There’s no substitute for live game repetitions,” Jones said. “This young football team’s going to find out what life is in the SEC on a daily and weekly basis starting with Georgia.”
BRINGING THE HEAT: Georgia has eight sacks and will be looking to exploit the inexperience on Tennessee’s offensive line, which has allowed nine sacks already. Keep an eye on linebackers Leonard Floyd and Amarlo Herrera.
HOME COOKING: Georgia’s last loss at home to an unranked team was against Kentucky in 2009.
COMING HOME: Tennessee’s first-team defense includes four players from the state of Georgia, led by senior linebacker A.J. Johnson, who’ll be making his last trip to Sanford Stadium. “I know we haven’t beaten them since I’ve been here, so that’s the main goal,” he said.
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