by Nick Carner
What do Derrick Tinsley, Eric Berry, Jamal Lewis, Inky Johnson and Ray Charles have in common?
They’re all from Georgia, of course.
Excluding Mr. Charles, the others all happened to play football at Tennessee, too.
They’re not the only ones either. I could go on, but you get the point. Tennessee recruits pretty heavily in the state of Georgia. Currently, Tennessee’s roster has 19 names of Peach State natives, like the defense’s leading tackler A.J. Johnson (31). Other notables include Brian Randolph, the team’s leading tackler before his injury, and the starting running back Raijon Neal.
If the Vol players need any extra motivation for Saturday’s game–other than the Bulldogs winning three of the last four games in the series–maybe it can be drawn from this core of Georgia players that were not heavily recruited by their home-state school (read: everybody not named JaWaun James). Maybe this group has something to prove. The Georgia game would be an ideal time to do it.
The Bulldogs are already 2-0 in conference play and have scored 40 or more points in the first four games of the year, while allowing opponents to convert just over 30% of their third downs. Georgia is just one week removed from an absolute beat-down of hapless Vanderbilt (#anchordown), when the freshman duo Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley each ran for two touchdowns and QB Aaron Murray added 250 yards and two scores through the air.
The alarming part? The Bulldogs haven’t been at full strength. Linebacker and future millionaire, NFL draft pick Jarvis Jones has been hampered by a groin injury, while safety Baccari Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree return this week after serving suspensions for violating the school’s substance abuse policy.
To be fair, the Georgia defense hasn’t played an offense nearly as explosive at UT’s (the only one close is Missouri), and you have to consider the level of competition faced so far. Florida Atlantic and Vanderbilt aren’t good football teams.
Tennessee, on the other hand, is coming off a less-than-inspiring win against an Akron squad that has a record of 3-25 since 2010 and an emotional loss to Florida. To the team’s credit, it didn’t quit when things got tough against Akron. It endured early turnovers and big plays from the Zips, while taking control and finishing the game emphatically.
Even though the Vols’ performance in the second half of the Florida game and the first three quarters of the Akron game weren’t ideal, the Vols are 3-1 on the season. Tennessee averages nearly 173 yard rushing per game, and Jim Chaney says he will stay committed to the run game. Tennessee integrated tight end Brendan Downs and wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard into the offense last week, giving Tyler Bray even more weapons in the passing game.
Further, Georgia-native and freshman fullback Justin King saw his first as a quarterback in the wildcat formation against Akron. King, who played quarterback in high school, looked natural running the option. Yet another wrinkle available for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and the offense.
But, can this team compete for 60 minutes and win a game against an SEC foe not named Kentucky, Vanderbilt or Ole Miss?
Now, the Georgia blood coursing through the veins of this Tennessee football team is undeniable, but it’s not just the roster, either. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley’s father, Vince Dooley, coached at Georgia for 25 years, posting an impressive 201-77 record with a national championship in 1980.
The younger Dooley now faces a pivotal four-game stretch. If the team mirrors it’s 2011 October performance–a 1-4 record, with the win against Buffalo–Tennessee Director of Athletics Dave Hart’s hand may be forced.
While the Georgia game falls in September this season, the point remains the same. A 0-for-October leaves Dooley at 1-11 during the month for his career, and 0-9 against Florida, Georgia and Alabama as UT’s coach. It would also leave the team at 3-5 in 2012.
Now, maybe Tennessee wins four straight after October, finishes 7-5 with a bowl win and maybe Dave Hart lets Dooley slide. Maybe.
But, just for a point of reference, Phillip Fulmer was asked to step down upon the 2008 season’s conclusion after an October loss to South Carolina, while Johnny Majors was also asked to resign shortly after the South Carolina game in 1992. As we all know, history tends to repeat itself.
Or, the Vols could beat Georgia, win some games in October and silence the critics–even if just temporarily.
Regardless, Dooley has the next month to prove he belongs as a coach in this league. And it all begins Saturday, in Athens.
It’s fitting that the most important game of Dooley’s life (to this point) would occur where he roamed the sidelines as a child. Life comes full-circle, indeed.
“Other arms reach out to me / other eyes smile tenderly / still in peaceful dreams I see / the road leads back to you, oh Georgia.