KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Derek Dooley knows he and the Volunteers are measured by how they perform against rivials like Georgia. Still, he has a hard time looking at Saturday's meeting with the Bulldogs as bigger than any other game.
The Vols (3-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) handily took care of three nonconference opponents but are still waiting to get the first win of against a major rival of Dooley's short tenure.
"Ultimately, we're going to get measured by how we play against these teams; I understand that," Dooley said. "This is one game, and if we don't play well and we get beat, then we've got to wake up and go try to correct it and play the next team. And if we do play well, we can't get excited because they keep coming. I don't know of any other way to think than that."
While Dooley looks for his first win against a rival, Georgia coach Mark Richt is in line for his 100th career victory. Richt got his first big win in 2011 when the Bulldogs upset a then-No. 6 Tennessee team in Knoxville, but a win on Saturday in a sold-out Neyland Stadium would be just as sweet with Georgia (3-2, 2-1) in a three-way tie for first in the SEC East after a 0-2 start to the season.
"I never thought I'd get to 100," he said. "I didn't know if I'd get to 100 games, period, but to get to 100 victories would be sweet, no doubt. The sweetest part of it would be if it happened this week. I would think there is a pretty good chance that this season we'll get to 100, but I sure would like it this week because it is Tennessee and it is so important for where we are right now and the race we're in."
Though Richt hasn't forgotten that first trip to Knoxville, he'd probably like to forget the two most recent ones. In 2007, the Vols raced to a 28-0 halftime lead and cruised to a 35-14 victory, and two years ago, they won even more resoundingly, 45-19.
"It was a pretty hostile crowd," Georgia tight end Orson Charles said of the 2009 game. "I was kind of upset because I felt like we just fizzled out in the second quarter. The score was pretty even and then we just fizzled out. The crowd got even louder because they felt like we gave up. I'm excited on going back in that stadium and showing them that this is a different Georgia team."
That different Georgia team showed its face against Tennessee last season. The Bulldogs took a 27-7 halftime lead en route to a 41-14 decision that ended a four-game losing streak.
This year, Georgia brings to town one of the SEC's top defenses, which is allowing 258.6 yards per game and has only given up one touchdown in the past three games and just three touchdown drives of 50 yards or more in the last four games. The Bulldogs' secondary has picked off eight passes this season but will be facing an accurate quarterback in the Vols' Tyler Bray, who is averaging 332 yards this season and has thrown 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions.
The Bulldogs have held their last three opponents to a combined 153 yards on the ground, and Tennessee's running game has struggled against lesser opponents. Senior tailback Tauren Poole will be looking to prove his 101 yards last week against Buffalo was a sign of what's to come rather than another chapter in an inconsistent season.
"The running game hasn't been there all year in my opinion," Poole said. "I have to get better at that. I haven't really done anything this year that I'm supposed to be doing and the numbers aren't really showing up. I have to continue to get better in the running game."
Tennessee's young defense also hopes to prove itself against a balanced attack led by Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, whose 220 yards per game rank just behind Bray and Arkansas' Tyler Wilson.
Dooley thinks Georgia has found "missing piece" on offense in running back Isaiah Crowell since dropping its first two games to Boise State and South Carolina. The freshman has 251 yards on 52 carries in the past two games.
"He's got the size and he's got good body quickness, so you never really get a clean hit on him," Dooley said. "He can break tackles and he's got speed."