No better example of this phenomenon exists than the Georgia team that visits Neyland Stadium for a 12:21 kickoff this Saturday. Mark Richt's Bulldogs rank No. 11 among the 12 SEC teams in penalty yards (74.6 per game) but also rank No. 1 in opponent penalties (83.6 yards per game). Basically, the Dawgs' undisciplined play tends to bring opponents down to their level.
That's an obvious concern for Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin, whose Vols are the SEC's least-penalized team at just 28.8 yards per game. His team has been flagged just 18 times in five games and ranks No. 4 nationally in penalties per game (3.6). Conversely, Georgia has been flagged 48 times in five games and ranks No. 115 nationally in penalties per game (9.6).
"This is a big battle for us because this is a team that is 115th out of 120 teams in penalties," Kiffin noted. "We can't get in that battle with 'em. We can't be exchanging penalties with 'em."
Tennessee averaged a very respectable 44.9 penalty yards per game in 2008. Still, Kiffin has reduced that number by another 16 yards per game in 2009 by making penalties one of his top priorities.
"We talk to our guys endlessly about penalties," he said. "They run laps for penalties (in practice). We show video of other teams making penalties we would consider foolish, game-changing penalties.
"So far, it's worked, and we need to keep that up. We're in the top five in the country in penalties, and I'm very proud of that."
Penalties are a concern for all head coaches but they appear to be something of an obsession for Kiffin. Case in point: He's still upset about a penalty his Vols incurred in the first half of their opener against Western Kentucky.
"We had a crucial 15-yard penalty on a special-teams play that I don't think there's any way it was a penalty," Kiffin recalled earlier this week. "It was a totally legal play but they (officials) said it was too far away from the ball."
The play in question involved a Nu'keese Richardson punt return that ended in Hilltopper territory. A Vol teammate was ruled to have made an illegal block on the other side of the field, however, bringing the ball back to Tennessee's 38-yard line.
"It was on a punt, and we were going to get the ball on the (WKU) 47-yard line," Kiffin recalled. "It was a 15-yard penalty, and that was a big momentum swing right there for us - a penalty that's almost impossible for us to coach out of them."
Calling that play "a big momentum swing" might be a bit of an exaggeration, since Tennessee went on to win the game 63-7. Even so, Kiffin remains angry about the call. The block was legal and clean. Essentially, it was ruled to be unnecessary.
"The ruling is that it was too far away from the ball but there's no way we can tell a guy (blocking on a punt return) that the ball's not going to come back over there," Kiffin said. "Usually, that penalty's called on the backside of a turnover ... a guy gets an interception and he's going down to score, and 40 yards behind the ball you hit somebody. Well, the ball's never going to come back that way (backwards).
"That was a real tough penalty for us to deal with at the time."
Apparently, it's a real tough penalty for the Vol coach to deal with five weeks after the fact ... which may explain why Tennessee is one of the least penalized teams in all of college football.