“Fifty-five and 95, those two guys are the two best tackles I’ve seen on a football field in a long time,” Georgia’s offensive line coach said in reference to Tennessee’s Jesse Mahelona, No. 55, and Tony McDaniel, No. 95.
Asked how long, Callaway’s mind drifted back to the ‘80s and a pair of Florida defensive tackles whose names he can’t remember.
“I can’t ever remember names,” he said.
Names don’t matter today anyway. It’s all about numbers. When No. 5 Georgia (4-0, 2-0 SEC) takes on No. 8 Tennessee (3-1, 2-1) in Knoxville at 3:30 p.m., the most important matchup of the game will take place between Georgia’s offensive line and Tennessee’s defensive line, two of the most dominant fronts in the SEC to this point.
The winner will be easy to quantify when the game is done. Whose backs rush for more yards? Whose quarterback stays on his feet? And which group of really big guys comes away with one more win?
“Their defensive front is huge,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “They’re strong, and they’re all capable of whipping any one of our guys one-on-one at any time. You wish in a week like this you had a couple real big guys inside because the matchups this week are not going to be in our favor.
“If they know it’s a pssing situaiton, you’re probably 50-50 if you’re going to block them or not.”
While Tennessee starts Parys Haralson, who is second in the SEC with four sacks, at end, it’s in the middle where they pose the biggest problem. That’s thanks to the 297-pound Mahelona, 295-pound McDaniel and 306-pound Justin Harrell, who averages as many tackles per game as any defensive tackle in the league.
Mahelona, a 2004 All-American, is the standout of the group. He has five tackles for loss this season.
“We’ve had some good ones, and you don’t want to slight anybody, but I’d probably take Jesse over anybody we’ve had right now,” Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “I said last year, I felt like toward the end of the year, he was one of the best in the country, and he’s played that way this year.”
It’s the kind of matchup that can legitimize the Bulldog offensive line’s turnaround if that group plays well.
“Everybody’s is watching, the NFL, everybody,” Georgia guard Max Jean-Gilles said. “They have a very aggressive front, and we have a very dominant ofensive line so it’s going to be a war.”
Jean-Gilles can afford to talk tough, since he weighs 340 pounds. Georgia’s other guard, Nick Jones (285), and its rotating centers, Russ Tanner (297) and Ryan Schnetzer (278), are a different story.
“We’ve got some concerns about them getting pushed back,” Richt said.
Jones and his counterparts will be fine, Jones said, if they use proper technique.
“Size is not a factor,” he said “We all agree that if we just do our techniques and stay low, we can hang. I’m comfortable with my size and my ability.”
Last year, Georgia started the same offensive line it will use today against a Tennessee defensive line that featured Mahelona and Harrell, and the Vols were the clear winners. Tennessee had five sacks and held the Bulldogs to 56 yards rushing. Mahelona had three tackles for loss by himself.
Georgia’s offensive line seems to have made progress since then. The Bulldogs have allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC this year (five) and are second in the league and 24th in the country in rushing (198 ypg).
“Hopefully, we’ll be good and sound fundamentally,” Callaway said, “and we’ll see what happens.”