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PREVIEW: UGA hoping to avoid slip-up in Knoxville

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is going up against a Tennessee defense today that is giving up 249.8 yards per game — a stat that could translate into a huge day for the QB who is trying to become the all-time leading passer in SEC history. (Reuters)

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is going up against a Tennessee defense today that is giving up 249.8 yards per game — a stat that could translate into a huge day for the QB who is trying to become the all-time leading passer in SEC history. (Reuters)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Sixth-ranked Georgia withstood a grueling first month of the season with its Southeastern Conference and national title hopes intact, but the Bulldogs have to avoid a slip-up when they travel to Tennessee for an SEC East contest today.

“Going to Knoxville is never easy,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told reporters. “Coaching in this league for 13 years now, I’ve been there a few times and have probably run every gamut of emotion from elation to getting your tail kicked.”

The Bulldogs have done the kicking lately, winning three straight meetings and four of the last five.

The Bulldogs are riding high after a 44-41 home win over LSU in which they drove 75 yards to score the winning touchdown with less than two minutes to play.

The shootout victory established Georgia as the front-runner to win the SEC East, which could put the Bulldogs in position to play their way into the national title game. Tennessee has won four straight at home, but it had plenty of trouble putting away South Alabama in a 31-24 victory last week.

Richt expected his defense to endure growing pains this season, and the offense has more than picked up the slack.

“Every game’s gonna be a barnburner ‘til we really get more stout on defense and continue to get our special teams in order,” Richt said.

Georgia ranks last in the SEC in scoring defense, giving up 32.5 points per game.

“Somewhere down the line, it’s gonna catch up to us if we continue to give up big points like that,” Georgia freshman cornerback Brendan Langley said.

Don’t expect that to come today at Tennessee. The Volunteers (3-2, 0-1 SEC) are rebuilding under first-year coach Butch Jones. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray should be able to feast on Tennessee’s defense, which gives up 249.8 yards per game.

Richt is concerned about Tennessee’s deep, experienced line.

“This offensive line is the best I’ve seen this year,” Richt said. “I do think they’re the class of the league and maybe the country.”

After a loss to start the season at Clemson, Georgia can’t afford any more letdowns in order to reach its goal of returning to the SEC title game. Murray doesn’t expect a letdown to happen against the Vols.

“We have a lot of momentum,” Murray said. “I think the biggest thing is that we have great leadership, and our leaders are really going to have to step up right now and make sure guys are staying focused. We’ve been practicing our tails off, just getting after it, working and training hard, staying very focused in meetings and on the field. I think that’s why we’ve been successful, because we are putting the work in right now.”

It has been almost four full years since Tennessee last defeated a nationally ranked opponent, a losing streak that now encompasses 18 games.

That streak looms large in the collective consciousness of Vol Nation, and first-year coach Butch Jones is pulling out all the stops to try to end that streak.

Whether it’s his decision to have the Vols wear their new “Smokey Gray” alternate uniforms or his willingness to continue to keep competition open to determine the best players at various positions, Tennessee’s home game against Georgia today has a make-or-break feel to it.

Georgia’s arrival signals the biggest game of the season. It’s taking place on CBS in the signature time slot of the week in the SEC television schedule.

It is that coveted chance for Tennessee to end its track record of futility against ranked foes, a stretch that dates back to the brief one-year tenure of Lane Kiffin at Rocky Top.

Beating the Bulldogs would be huge for Tennessee, which is 3-2 but dealing with some loud grumbles from the fan base after escaping with a 31-24 win over South Alabama last week in a game in which the Jaguars scored 17 unanswered points in the second half.

The Vols’ quarterback position has been under particular scrutiny. With Justin Worley battling some inconsistency, many fans are clamoring for Tennessee to give one of its two freshmen — Riley Ferguson or Josh Dobbs — a shot.

Although the Vols already have played 14 true freshmen this season, don’t expect to see a rookie under center as long as Worley remains healthy.

“As much as everyone wants to see them, it’s my job and it’s my responsibility to them and to their parents and to our football program to not put them, if given that luxury, until they’re ready,” Jones said. “In our professional opinion right now they haven’t been ready. Will that change this week? It may change based on how they handle practice.”