Casey's health holds the key

Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen leads the SEC in completion percentage (67.9), completions per game (22) and total offense (284 yards per game). So, if he can't play Saturday at Georgia, the Vols' chances to win plummet.

Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen leads the SEC in completion percentage (67.9), completions per game (22) and total offense (284 yards per game). So, if he can't play Saturday at Georgia, the Vols' chances to win plummet. Even if Clausen is able to play, odds are he won't be as effective as usual. That raises the question: Will his teammates rally around him to ease the load on their leader? ''I think so,'' tight end Jason Witten said. ''We probably can't go in depending on him as much, so other guys are going to have to step up. Whether it's (backup quarterback) C.J. Leak or the running game or the receivers picking it up a notch, somebody's going to have to.'' Ideally, the task of picking up the slack for Clausen will fall on the shoulders of several players, rather than one or two. ''It needs to be the whole offense,'' Witten said. ''Just pick him up and carry him.'' In spite of speculation that Clausen might not be healthy enough to play at all Saturday, Witten doesn't see that as a possibility. ''There's no question he'll go on Saturday,'' the Vol tight end said. ''He might not be able to throw as well but he'll be able to go.'' Even if Clausen's passing skills are adversely affected, he brings something else to the lineup that is invaluable. ''Leadership,'' Witten said. ''Everybody's relaxed and comfortable when he's on the field. We realize he's under control when he lines up. I think more than the actual throwing of the ball, it's having that leader out there and having the team under control. That's what the quarterback does.'' Given Clausen's value as a passer and team leader -- plus his uncertain status for Saturday's game -- predicting the outcome of this UT-Georgia showdown is even riskier than usual. Georgia has the homefield advantage but the Bulldogs haven't beaten an SEC foe ranked in the top 10 at Sanford Stadium since 1976. On the flipside, Tennessee isn't playing like a top-10 team, despite a 4-1 record and No. 10 ranking. The Vols have plenty of incentive after losing two in a row to the Dawgs but, with Clausen physically limited, I'm not sure they have enough firepower to get revenge. Another thing that concerns me is Tennessee's apparent difficulty making in-game adjustments. Whenever an opponent hits the Vols with an unexpected wrinkle, it seems the staff can't identify a solution until halftime. The Big Orange then comes out like gangbusters in the third quarter but often fades in the fourth quarter. This perception is supported by Tennessee's scoring breakdown. The Vols outscored their first five foes by a combined 34-7 in the opening quarter. The opponents adjusted, however, and outscored UT 34-20 in the second quarter. Tennessee made its adjustments at the break and stonewalled its opponents 48-0 in the third period but the foes re-adjusted and played UT tight (36-30) in the final period. My concern is this: If Georgia wins the first half and gets its rabid fans fired up, the Vols may be too far behind at halftime for their adjustments to make much difference. That, coupled with Clausen's injured shoulder, gives me a negative vibe about this game. My pick: Georgia 24, Tennessee 17.

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