In a game that has serious ramifications in the SEC East race, Georgia and Tennessee will both count on their passing games to make a difference, albeit in completely different ways.
Last Saturday completely redefined the race for the SEC East title. Florida missed a (longshot) opportunity to beat Alabama and seize control of the division, while South Carolina's own grip on the title was done in by Stephen Garcia's completion percentage and Philip Lutzenkirchen's late touchdown reception (and fumble recovery). With between five and seven conference games remaining for each team, the race is officially a complete logjam.
SEC East Standings
South Carolina: 2-1
With road games versus Alabama, Florida and Tennessee and, more importantly, no offensive prowess of which to speak, I'm going to assume Vanderbilt has no chance. The same goes for Kentucky, whose offense may even be worse. But it is fair to say that at this point, the other four East teams can all claim a shot at the division title.
We have heard plenty about the virtues of Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, but Tennessee has remained somewhat under the radar. And with games versus three killer West division opponents -- LSU (in Knoxville), Alabama (in Tuscaloosa) and Arkansas (in Fayetteville) -- there may be a very good reason for that. That Georgia drew Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn might make them the de facto favorite at this point. But at least in terms of quality, Tennessee deserves a mention. It is still early, but the Vols currently rank 17th in Football Outsiders' F/+ rankings, ahead of both South Carolina (25th) and Georgia (27th). Only Florida (12th) ranks ahead of them in the East.
The Vols get South Carolina at home on October 29, and they host Georgia Saturday in what really is a pivotal game in the East race. The winner solidifies its East prospects (more so for Georgia with their remaining schedule), and the loser is all but finished. Georgia head coach Mark Richt obviously continues to face pressure to win at a high level this year, but Tennessee enters tomorrow's game relatively loose. Not much is expected of them just yet.
General Robert Neyland, after whom Tennessee's stadium is named, is one of about 17 former coaches credited with the famous "Only three things can happen when you pass, and two of 'em are bad" line. (As with most of college football's history, basically anybody can attribute anything to anybody.) But plenty of good has happened when both Tennessee and Georgia have thrown the ball this season, and it stands to reason that whoever passes best tomorrow will take the game.
While both offenses appear to have certain advantages in the passing game, the way each uses the pass could not be more different. Both throw the ball a perfectly average amount of time on standard down -- Tennessee's run percentage is 58.0 (67th in the country), Georgia's 58.8 (63rd) -- and each team is similarly proficient on such downs (Georgia ranks 50th in Standard Downs S&P+, Tennessee 61st).
But Tennessee's approach on passing downs operates with much more of a no-holds-barred mindset. The Vols run just 24.4 percent of the time on passing downs (103rd in the country). Georgia goes as far in the other direction as possible, running 52.9 percent on passing downs (sixth). This truly is an interesting dichotomy. The offenses are similar on first-and-10 or second-and-4, but on second- or third-and-long, Tennessee turns into Oklahoma while Georgia turns into Kansas State.
Tennessee has truly thrown caution to the wind on passing downs, and it has thus far paid off. Their strength, efficiency, has been on display almost as much on passing downs (51 percent) as standard downs (57 percent), but the key to their chances in this game could be their ability to be as efficient without Justin Hunter as they were with him. Hunter was catching passes at an 85-percent clip and gaining 18.5 yards per catch at the time of his injury versus Florida. That is best-receiver-in-the-country caliber right there. What is even more impressive is what happened when Tyler Bray targeted him on passing downs: six attempts, six catches, 143 yards.
Would that have continued all season? Of course not. But that still signifies the void created by Hunter's injury.
In their first game post-Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers stepped up in a major way: seven catches for 181 yards in eight targets. But that was against Buffalo. While Tennessee's offense appears to have the advantage in the passing game -- they rank fourth in Off. Passing S&P+ while Georgia ranks 30th in Def. Passing S&P+ -- things get interesting on passing downs. Tennessee's all-pass routine has worked thus far (second in Off. Passing Downs S&P+), but Georgia shuts offenses down once leveraged into uncomfortable situations (fifth in Def. Passing Downs S&P+). They rank 16th in Adj. Sack Rate, and a good portion of that comes because of passing downs success. Tennessee can succeed with the forward pass, but it would behoove them to do a good portion of their damage before they fall into second- or third-and-long this time.
For Georgia, the theme isn't aggression as it is for Tennessee; the Bulldogs are simply about safety and recovery. Boise State completely destroyed Aaron Murray and the UGa offense on passing downs, sacking him five times in 18 passing downs pass attempts, a 28-percent sack rate. Since then, however, Georgia has rebounded.
Murray has been sacked only four times in 39 such attempts since then (a 10-percent sack rate that is still worse than the national average), and with a defense improving quickly, the Bulldogs have played more and more conservatively. They ran the ball just 31 percent of the time on passing downs against Boise State; since then: 59 percent. Granted, a lot of this has to do with their "build a lead and crawl into a shell" strategy the last two games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, but still, conservatism has ruled for the Dawgs. It will be interesting to see if that changes in such an important game.
Barring a complete identity change, Georgia will allow themselves to be a bit more aggressive on standard downs, handing the ball quite a bit to Isaiah Crowell and company but still passing 40 percent of the time or so. And when they do, they like to spread the ball around.
Three main receivers could all somewhat stake a claim to "No. 1 target" status: freshman Malcolm Mitchell (29 catches, 22 catches, 312 yards), tight end Orson Charles (25 targets, 16 catches, 256 yards) and veteran receiver Tavarres King (22 targets, 12 catches, 138 yards). Mitchell's emergence as a youngster hasn't been as important to Georgia as Crowell's, but it should not be underestimated. And against a Tennessee defense that ranks 50th both in terms of Passing S&P+ and Standard Downs S&P+, success for Mitchell against the Vols could put Georgia over the top in this one.