ATHENS — This used to be one of those signature games on the Southeastern Conference schedule.
Now, outside of Derek Dooley facing the team his dad once coached, there's nothing more intriguing about Tennessee vs. Georgia than which team will finally get its first SEC win today.
The Volunteers (2-3, 0-2 SEC) are coming off a disheartening loss at LSU after time expired and are clearly in a rebuilding mode under first-year coach Dooley.
As for Georgia (1-4, 0-3), a team that thought it could contend in the SEC East is mired in a four-game losing streak — its longest in two decades — and the worst conference start since 1993.
"With everything that's been happening as far as how we lose, where we lose, who we lost to, it's just been a shocker," freshman defensive back Alec Ogletree said.
As the losses have mounted, so has the pressure on Georgia's Mark Richt, the dean of SEC coaches. Now in his 10th season between the hedges, he knows his future could very well depend on how the Bulldogs close out the season.
Asked if he was coaching for his job, Richt said, "You always are."
Then, pausing to gather his thoughts, he added, "I can tell you I'm coaching my tail off. There's only certain things I can control. That's what I'm working on."
This is the second straight disappointing season in Athens, and really the third in a row considering the 2008 team that started the year ranked No. 1 but lost three games, even with an offense that included future NFL first-round picks Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno.
The Bulldogs slipped to 8-5 last year, so Richt's record over the last 18 games is a very-un-Georgia-like 9-9, including six losses in the last eight SEC games.
"A lot of people might say, 'Why me? Why us?' Why not us?" Richt said. "It's a test of our ability to handle these adverse situations. It's something we can all grow from. I know our young people are hopefully learning a lot positive things through it. It's not fun while you're going through it. But I think as people, when we go through hard times, we normally learn from it, grow from it and get better for it. That's my goal."
Dooley, the son of former Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, knew he was taking on a rebuilding job when he signed on as Tennessee's third coach in three years.
But he never expected to lose like he did in Baton Rouge.
LSU frittered away the closing seconds and appeared to have lost with an errant snap on the final play, but Tennessee was penalized for too many men on the field. Given one more shot with no time on the clock, the Tigers punched over the touchdown for a 16-14 victory.
"It just hurts so bad," linebacker Nick Reveiz said. "You really don't know how to describe it any other way. You really can't take anything positive out of it because it hurts so bad."
Obviously, a win over Georgia would go a long way toward soothing that pain.
"There are two ways we can go right now," defensive end Chris Walker said. "We can either feel sorry for ourselves losing the game the way we did and go down to Georgia and get beat. Or we can just ... go to work and have physical practices every day and go down there and play well."
Georgia changed up its practice schedule, putting players in full pads the Monday after a game for the first time in Richt's tenure. He was looking to instill more passion and discipline.
"It got everyone thinking tough, playing tough," offensive tackle Josh Davis said. "If you sit around in a funk when going full speed, you'll get yourself hurt or someone else hurt. I think that definitely helped the mindset."
At least the Bulldogs have A.J. Green. After serving a four-game suspension for selling his bowl jersey to someone considered an agent, he returned with a flourish last week in a loss to Colorado: seven catches for 119 yards, two touchdowns and a 40-yard run on a reverse.
Green could be primed for another big game going against a defense that ranks 11th in the SEC in yards allowed (377 per game).
"They've got probably the best player in college football playing receiver," Dooley said. "You saw just his presence his first game back. The guy's unbelievable. That's the No. 1 challenge."
Tennessee also must go a better job of protecting the quarterback. The Vols have given up an SEC-worst 19 sacks, leaving Dooley fretting about the health of Matt Simms.
"I'm worried about everything when we pass the ball from a pressure standpoint," the coach said. "Sacks are devastating."
One thing he's not worried about is facing the school where is father coached for 25 years. But Vince Dooley, who will watch the game from home instead of his usual seat at Sanford Stadium, sounded like a worried parent when he talked about the difficult task facing his 42-year-old son.
"He has a much tougher job than I had," the former coach said. "I wish it was me instead of him."