Tennessee is 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference going into today’s game against No. 10 Georgia.
The Vols lead the SEC in defense and have depth at tailback led by senior Arian Foster, who could become the school’s all-time leading rusher.
Richt’s message to reporters this week was the same as his stern reminder to his players: Tennessee is "an outstanding football team," no matter the record, which includes an overtime loss at UCLA and a 14-12 loss at Auburn.
"They very easily could be 4-1 and could be a top 15, top 10 team right now," Richt said.
Tennessee has won two straight against Georgia and three of four. The streak includes two straight wins for the Vols at Sanford Stadium.
Georgia tailback Knowshon Moreno said the players listened to Richt’s warning.
"You can’t look at their record," Moreno said. "They’re going to play like they’re 5-0, and that’s how you have to approach this."
Georgia’s 35-14 loss in Knoxville was a low point to its 2007 season. The Bulldogs recovered to win their final seven games and finish No. 2 in the nation.
The Bulldogs were No. 1 in the preseason poll and stretched the winning streak to 11 games with a 4-0 start this season before a 41-30 home loss to Alabama on Sept. 27.
Tennessee, which beat the Bulldogs 51-33 in Athens in 2006, had an off-week before last year’s win over Georgia.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford said he hopes Georgia takes advantage of having an open date last week.
"I think we’ve gotten their best both times we have played them, and we just haven’t come out to play," Stafford said. "I think last year we weren’t ready at all and we didn’t play physical on the line of scrimmage. They put a bunch of points up on us early and we didn’t do anything about it."
Georgia (4-1 overall, 1-1 SEC) can still control its chances in the SEC East if it can end its two-game losing streak to the Vols.
"We have a wonderful opportunity to turn it around," Richt said. "I really hope we take advantage of it. I see nothing out there to make me feel like we won’t turn it around. ... This game is huge in how our season is going to be remembered."
It’s also an opportunity for Tennessee to turn its season around.
"There’s nothing wrong with this team at all that a good win would not fix," said Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, who’s been facing intense scrutiny for Vols fans.
Foster needs 121 yards rushing to pass Johnnie Jones for third place on Tennessee’s all-time rushing list, and is on pace to pass James Stewart and Travis Henry for the career lead. The depth at tailback is good, too, with Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer, who was recruited by Richt.
"If he’s their third-teamer right now, they’ve got two great backs, I can promise you, because Creer has tremendous talent," Richt said.
The wealth of talented runners hasn’t translated into points for Tennessee.
The Volunteers have averaged 10.3 points over their last three games, and the loss to Auburn led to a change at quarterback.
Sophomore Nick Stephens started ahead of junior Jonathan Crompton in last week’s 13-9 win over Northern Illinois. It wasn’t exactly the offensive breakthrough that Tennessee fans expected.
"I think it is just growing pains really," Foster said. "There isn’t a real excuse for it. We’ve just got to go out there and not make mistakes."
Stephens will make his first SEC start.
"I’m excited," Stephens said. "Being on a platform like that, with people watching, that many people in a big stadium like that. It’s Georgia. It’s Georgia week. It’s going to be fun."
Stephens was 10-for-17 passing for 156 yards and a touchdown against Northern Illinois after throwing only two passes in the first four games.
Moreno suffered a severely bruised elbow as he was held to only 34 yards rushing on nine carries against Alabama. Moreno, who has 10 touchdowns, says he won’t be limited by the injury against Tennessee.
The Bulldogs offensive line shuffling has been as much a problem for Moreno as any injury.
If Cordy Glenn starts at left guard, Georgia could have five freshmen starting on offense, including receiver A.J. Green and offensive linemen Justin Anderson and Ben Jones.
The return of senior fullback Brannan Southerland to the offense after recovering from two foot surgeries could help with the blocking, too.