KNOXVILLE – Tennessee took its first steps Monday to prepare for a trip to No. 5 Georgia on Saturday.
Prepping for the Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0 SEC) should keep the Vols busy.
That’s because this Georgia team is as balanced as coach Mark Richt has had in his tenure in Athens. The Dawgs are versatile on offense, strong on defense and find themselves in the thick of the SEC East title race.
"We all know about Georgia," coach Derek Dooley said at his weekly press conference on Monday. "There is no sense in me talking about how good they are. They are probably playing as good as I've seen them in a long time.”
Georgia’s early-season success starts with junior quarterback Aaron Murray. The third-year starter is second in the league with 1,092 passing yards and tied for second with 10 touchdown passes.
He’s also an underrated scrambler. Murray ran for 41 yards and two touchdowns the last time the Vols played Georgia in Athens in 2010. The Bulldogs don’t design many runs for him, but he’s a threat to leave the pocket at any point.
“The one thing is it puts a lot of stress on the D-line in containing the pocket, collapsing the pocket and keeping that guy contained and just breaking away from blocks and making plays," defensive back Prentiss Waggner said of Murray's ability to run.
The emergence of freshman running back Todd Gurley has also been a huge boost to the Georgia offense. After dismissing 2011’s leading rusher, Isaiah Crowell, before the season, running back was thought to be a position of weakness for the Bulldogs.
Instead, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Gurley has been one of the most reliable backs in the conference, leading the SEC with 406 yards on just 44 carries – an impressive 9.2 yards per carry average.
“We have to win at the line of scrimmage first, play good scheme discipline and then have a lot of hats to the football because one guy isn't going to bring him down,” Dooley said. “It's very hard when he breaks through the first seven to bring him down with those little guys in the back.”
Defensively, Georgia’s numbers haven’t been as impressive as the offense's through four games, but the unit features plenty of talent, including All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones, who is in the top-10 in the league in average number of tackles, sacks and tackles for loss.
"If you are not aware of where he is he can just wreck your game plan because of his athleticism and ability to win on pass rush and be disruptive in the backfield,” Dooley said. “He just has one of those playmaking personalities. He wants to make a game-changing play and they move him around a little bit.”
No. 2 running back spot up for grabs: While junior Rajion Neal has solidified himself as the top running back, the Vols are still looking for a reliable second option going forward.
"We're still searching a little bit,” Dooley said. “We have three guys we are trying to figure out right now. They all have different skill sets, all do different things and it is probably hard on everybody right now trying to figure it out."
Freshman Quenshaun Watson and sophomores Marlin Lane and Devrin Young are the three Dooley was referring to. Watson was the second back in on Saturday against Akron, but he gained only six yards on eight carries in what was essentially an audtion for him to be the backup to Neal.
Statistically speaking, Lane has been the second-most productive back on the team with 27 carries for 154 yards, and he was also the leading returning rusher from the 2011 squad. Dooley wants to see more consistency from Lane before declaring him the clear No. 2.
“The thing coaches love is when they put a player in a game, they know exactly what they are going to get, no matter how good or bad it is,” Dooley said in reference to a question about Lane. “The things that make coaches nervous is when you put a player in a game and you have no idea what is coming.”
Vols learn from 2010 trip to Athens: Saturday’s game will bring back memories of the 2010 trip to Athens, a dominating 42-14 win by a Georgia team that went into the game just 1-4 overall.
"We are a lot more prepared and we are certainly a lot better than we were two years ago,” Dooley said. “We didn't play very good down there and obviously need a lot better effort than what we put on two years ago."
Dooley also believes that experience will have the Vols more prepared to play in their first true road game of the season. Many of the starters this year such as quarterback Tyler Bray, running back Rajion Neal and several of the offensive linemen played important roles in the 2010 games as well.
“The good news is that a lot of our guys have been in these environments, so it shouldn't be as overwhelming as it has been in the past, at least I hope it isn't,” Dooley said. You look on offense and I think everybody except CP (Cordarrelle Patterson) and Tiny (Richardson) played at Georgia two years ago. Defense probably not as many but we had a lot of hostile games last year, so hopefully you learn from it. You have to learn to enjoy playing in that kind of environment."
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.