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Perspective Piece: Tennessee-Georgia
Much of the tension that will be felt Between the Hedges this Saturday evening revolves around Georgia and its quarterback situation. With the injury to Joe Tereshinski III, the shaky play of Matthew Stafford, and the Colorado dramatics of Joe Cox, there's no sense of real stability under center for the program that, ironically, has been the most stable in the SEC East over the past few seasons precisely because it's had a couple of rocks under center: David Greene and D.J. Shockley. With reliable signal callers to call upon, Mark Richt has captured a division crown in three of the past four years, and a league title in two of them; in this one season, however, his otherwise-loaded team might lack the field general who can unlock the full measure of the Dawgs' talents. The coach they call the "Reverend" in Athens could have fully ripened quarterbacks in the future, but for this one Autumn, lean times could lie ahead.
This Tennessee contest is so critical for Georgia, then, because a loss--and any attendant psychological wreckage that could befall Georgia's quarterbacks--would have a devastating effect on the Dawgs. Losing a home division game would obviously force Georgia to be near-perfect in the remainder of its SEC slate, but the true burden caused by a loss to the Vols would be the psychologically weakened state the Dawgs would bring to the remainder of their conference games. Winning in the SEC is hard enough; winning with mental fragility under center is exponentially more difficult. Losing this game won't send Georgia into a prolonged program-wide funk; Richt's foundation is too solid for that to happen. But oh, a second straight home loss to Tennessee will likely take down the 2006 season. A stable program with unsteady quarterback play needs to re-anchor itself right away, and that's more than a little pressure for any program in a fierce backyard rivalry on the order of Vols-Dawgs.
But as much as Georgia is playing for with respect to the 2006 season, Tennessee is fighting for something more: the long-term reputation of the program.
A win over Cal in the season opener prevented the Vols from having to worry about sliding into the football hell of outright mediocrity. But after losing to Florida for the second straight year, Phil Fulmer enters Sanford Stadium with Old Demon Pressure once again resting on his broad shoulders. Fulmer's not fighting to avoid a losing season and secure a bowl bid in this game; that hurdle was surmounted in the win over Cal. Moreover, with old buddy David Cutcliffe bringing along quarterback Erik Ainge, Tennessee's head coach won't preside over another 5-6 nightmare anytime soon. So it's not as though the desperation level is off the charts for the Children of the Checkerboard. What is at stake, though, is something different from avoiding a fall into oblivion: it's Tennessee's place as a championship program.
A spectacular crash-and-burn is gruesome and embarrassing, the kind of tumble that no proud football program ever hopes to experience. Tennessee has clearly dusted itself off from the horror of 2005 to reassert its place as a program worthy of respect on a gameday Saturday. But there's still another level the Vols must attain and reclaim: the level befitting a championship program. It's one thing to go from 5-6 to 8-4 or 9-3. It's much more difficult--and grueling--to make that deceivingly large step from 9-3 and second place in the division to 10-2 and Atlanta-bound on the first weekend of December. That, in short, is what the Vols are trying to do this Saturday. They've made the first climb; now, though, the Vols must make that second and more arduous journey, and if they lose to Georgia, that journey will end in a defeat that will crush hearts on Rocky Top.
Just consider: if Tennessee loses this game, Fulmer will be saddled with a four-game losing streak to Florida and Georgia, a big bagel that never existed during the Ron Zook or Jim Donnan or Ray Goff years at those two programs. But now, with Richt at Georgia and Urban Meyer at Florida, the Vols--who chased Steve Spurrier's shadow (and successfully, as it would turn out) throughout the 1990s--are faced with the need to overtake Mark Richt's model program and Meyer's surging outfit at the same time. Another "double-bagel" against the Florida-Georgia axis will render Fulmer's program--while no longer in 5-6 territory--one of those nice, safe 8-4 or 9-3 programs whom you politely applaud with a golf clap for making the Peach Bowl (once again, no corporate bowl names welcome around here). Tennessee is playing Georgia not just for backyard bragging rights or divisional survival this Saturday; the Vols will venture Between the Hedges to announce that they are still capable of chasing--and ultimately running down--championship glory. It's a prize so big, so crucial, that the failure to capture it could well resonate beyond 2006 in Knoxville.
Georgia's playing for this year on Saturday; Tennessee is playing for the long-term status of the program in a new era of SEC football. There are some kinds of pressure and achievement in college football, and then there are others. Tennessee's made one step this season; now, though, the Vols must take that second--and much more difficult--climb back up the college football ladder.