It’s an unpleasant topic of conversation for Tennessee, but it’s one that must be had.
A necessary hurdle the program must clear in its journey back to respectability is beating a ranked opponent.
Vol Nation knows the stats. They were drilled with them during the dark days of the Derek Dooley era: The Vols are in the thick of an 18-game losing streak to ranked foes, a streak that dates all the way back to Lane Kiffin's win against South Carolina in 2009.
Sixth-ranked Georgia is the next chance to rid Rocky Top of that blemish. But to many Vols players, Saturday’s contest is something much more. It’s a battle against their hometown team. A team Tennessee hasn’t topped since 2009.
Tennessee’s roster holsters 21 players from the Peach State.
Vols linebacker Brent Brewer is a one-time Georgia commit and hails from Tyrone, Ga. He grinned when asked if he prepares for Georgia differently from other SEC opponents.
“Yeah, we do,” Brewer said. “Not gonna lie. We go a little harder in practice so we know we can win the game in practice and Saturday will be a lot easier.”
Rajion Neal would beg to differ. The Fayetteville, Ga., product, says Georgia is just another game. But his smile said it all.
“I can’t lie, the state of Georgia definitely supports the Bulldogs,” Neal said when asked if he grew up a Georgia fan. “I grew up very aware of what they had, but we’re a Tennessee family now.”
Wideout Jason Croom, who hails from Norcross, showed no cracks in his façade when asked about playing his hometown team. There was no smile. Just a stern stare. And a cold response.
“I’m not really worried about that,” Croom said.
Contain back in the spotlight
The Tennessee defense will add to its already impressive list of running backs faced on Saturday whether Georgia has standout tailback Todd Gurley at its disposal or not.
“Georgia’s running backs are up there,” defensive end Corey Miller said. “They’re talented. They’re up there with some of the great ones we’ve seen.”
Gurley left the Bulldogs’ last game against LSU early in the second quarter when he injured his left ankle on a 23-yard run. Gurley was wearing a boot for the rest of the contest.
Gurley has tallied 461 yards, averaging 6.3 yards per touch.
Keith Marshall, an equally dangerous back in Georgia’s stable, presents perhaps more of a challenge to Tennessee’s defense.
Gurley is predicated as a physical runner. He totes the rock between the tackles, racking up his yards traveling north and south. Marshall does his damage on the edge, scampering off tackle.
The Vols have struggled with containment on the edges all season.
“You have to keep your edges against (Georgia),” Miller said. “You can’t peak in, ‘cuz once you peak your head in they’re headed outside and hitting it.”
In the meantime, the Vols are preparing as if Gurley will play.
“We’re expecting to see him,” Miller said.
It would certainly benefit Tennessee if they didn’t encounter Gurley. Miller can agree. He compared Georgia’s feature back to a runner who makes his living carrying the rock on Sunday.
“He reminds me of Trent Richardson, I’m not going to lie,” Miller said. “They have one of the most talented offensive backfields we’ve faced.”
It's not Worley's fault
Wideout Jason Croom isn’t about to let Justin Worley take all the blame for a stagnant offense.
In fact, Croom won’t blame Worley for any of Tennessee’s passing woes.
“Worley is a great quarterback. We just got to help him out,” Croom said. “I mean, anything he do wrong, it’s on us. He’s just throwing to a spot and we’re expected to be there.”
Croom admits the chemistry between the pass catchers and the pass thrower is still a work in progress, as seen right before halftime against South Alabama.
Tennessee had the ball on the 4-yard line. Worley rolled right to see Alton Howard streaking across the field. He threw the ball, expecting his slotman to continue running flat across the field. Howard had other plans. He stopped his route and worked to the back of the end zone. The miscommunication resulted in an interception.
The flaws are indeed there. But Croom says his chemistry with Worley improves everyday.
“Just doing little things, like watching film together and going out to eat together,” Croom said. “That all adds up. We’ll get there.”
Can't blame fans for boos
Late in the second half against South Alabama, “Boos” reigned down from the Neyland Stadium rafters.
The offense had stalled. A Sun Belt foe was forcing its way back into the game. It was just another drop in the ongoing Justin Worley rollercoaster.
Butch Jones doesn’t blame the fans for voicing their displeasure, nor is he about to pat Worley on the back and tell him it’s all going to be okay. Boos are apart of a quarterback’s life.
“You know, it’s playing quarterback. I’ve always said it, praise and blame it’s all the same. It’s the nature of the position. You can’t worry about that,” Jones said. “We have a great passionate fan base here and they want to win. I can’t blame them for that. You can’t worry about that stuff.”
Lane day to day
Running back Marlin Lane pumped away atop a stationary bike tucked in a shady corner of Haslam Field for the duration of practice Tuesday. Lane remains day-to-day with a leg injury.
Tom Smith is the next man in. Running mate Rajion Neal says nothing has changed at practice in Lane’s absence.
“We enter every week like everyone is playing,” Neal said. “So nothing has really changed.”
Neal said he has full faith in Smith to carry the weight.
“Tom has really grown,” Neal said. “… It’s good seeing the growth since he was a freshman.”
Rajion Neal video interview
Justin Worley video interview