The embarrassment that followed last year’s 35-14 loss to Tennessee wasn’t just about losing a football game. It was about how the Bulldogs lost the game. They barely put up a fight.
So when Georgia fell 10 points behind Vanderbilt a week later, it could have ended the Bulldogs’ season. This time, however, they fought back. They had learned a lesson against Tennessee they used spark a 20-17 win over the Commodores.
“I think it was more the Vanderbilt game that really sparked us, just getting a win after a loss like that,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “But it definitely opened our eyes up.”
The lesson from that loss to Tennessee carried beyond the next game. It still resonated with the Bulldogs as they took the field for the second half against Alabama two weeks ago, trailing 31-0.
Georgia fought back, pulling to within 14 early in the fourth quarter before eventually losing 41-30. The loss was crushing, defensive end Jeremy Lomax said, but at least the players could hold their heads up this time.
“Alabama loss and Tennessee loss were two separate losses,” Lomax said. “Alabama loss, we came out fighting. The Tennessee loss, we didn’t do that. It felt like we just kind of gave in. … It’s not a content loss, but at least we fought. It’s motivation going into this week.”
Just as the win over Vanderbilt sparked the Bulldogs’ season last year, today’s game against Tennessee has a chance to do the same.
On the heels of their first loss since last season’s defeat at the hands of the Volunteers, Georgia is approaching today’s game as a chance to refocus its goals and re-energize its season. Tennessee, however, may be even more desperate.
The Volunteers opened the season with an upset loss to UCLA then dropped their first two SEC games of the season. A loss today could end any hope the team has of playing for a conference title.
That, however, doesn’t mean the Bulldogs aren’t taking them seriously.
“They’re a better football team than their record gives them credit for,” Stafford said, “They’ve got a lot of players on defense that can make plays.”
Tennessee boasts the top defense in the SEC, despite being forced to make up for a bevy of offensive miscues.
The Volunteers have turned the ball over nine times this season, but the defense has allowed just 19 points following those mistakes, a statistic that impressed Richt.
“The ball is turned over all the sudden you are in the situation you have to keep the team from scoring, they have done a great job,” Richt said.
Tennessee’s defense features two of the country’s top safeties in Eric Berry and Demetrice Morley, who have shut down opposing passing games. While Georgia will try to establish the run with Knowshon Moreno, the Volunteers have allowed just one rushing touchdown this season.
Of course, the Volunteers are 2-3 for a reason, and it starts with offense.
Tennessee is averaging just 18 points per game, 10th in the SEC. Prior to last week’s 13-9 win over Northern Illinois, head coach Phil Fulmer made a change at quarterback, replacing incumbent starter Jonathan Crompton with sophomore Nick Stephens.
“For whatever reason they were struggling and needed to make a change,” Richt said. “A lot of times that could be the spark that makes the difference.”
Rather than rely on Stephens’ arm, however, Tennessee is likely to build its offensive game plan around running back Arian Foster, who has destroyed Georgia the past two years.
Despite a history of fumbling problems against other SEC foes, Foster has been dominant against the Bulldogs, racking up 161 yards and six touchdowns against Georgia in 2006 and 2007.
“He’s probably real excited about the opportunity, and he’s been a Georgia killer to this point,” Richt said. “All that other stuff, it’s been good for the other teams, but he hasn’t been good for us.”
The biggest hurdle for Georgia, however, may have nothing to do with Berry, Foster or Tennessee’s various weapons. For many of the players, this game is as much about putting Alabama in the rearview mirror as it is about looking ahead.
The Bulldogs have spent the past two weeks working on the flaws the Crimson Tide exposed, from excessive penalties to an ineffective pass rush to the offensive line’s struggles in the running game.
Richt said he sees no reason those problems can’t be solved, but it has to start against Tennessee. For the past two years, the Volunteers have spoiled Georgia’s season. This time, Richt said, he hopes they can salvage it.
“We’ve got a wonderful opportunity to turn it around,” Richt said. “I really hope we take advantage. This game is huge in how our season is going to be remembered.”