ATHENS -- Before this season began, Georgia and Tennessee were considered the top two contenders to vie for an SEC East division title.
That narrative has changed slightly.
Tennessee enters Saturday’s game 2-3 and in desperate need of a win. Having lost SEC contests to Florida and Arkansas, the chances of the Volunteers capturing the East title have become slim.
Georgia’s 4-0 start had some people thinking it could be in for a special season if it could get a win over Alabama. A 38-10 loss later, the ever-present optimism has somewhat evaporated as the loss lingers into this week’s game against Tennessee.
“Our big thing is to grow from it. It’s not a total loss if you learn from it,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “And that’s true in all losses. So we do feel like we put it behind us. We feel like we’ve made the corrections we need to make, and we’re moving forward and hopefully be better because of the changes or the feeling that you just don’t want to feel again.”
Both teams will have plenty to prove and a lot to play for when Saturday’s game kicks off.
Tennessee has been rebuilding since former head coach Phillip Fulmer’s final season in 2008. Butch Jones is the third Volunteers head coach since Fulmer’s 17-year tenure ended. Lane Kiffin took over in 2009 but left for USC after one season. Derek Dooley, the son of former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley, spent three seasons at Tennessee from 2010-12 but was fired.
Jones was hired in 2013 after posting 10-win seasons in previous stints at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Last year’s 7-6 campaign snapped a four-year stretch of losing records for the Volunteers, and with 17 starters returning to this year’s team, there was plenty of optimism entering the 2015 season.
“We’ve come so far to be competitive,” Jones said. “We have to start winning these (close) games. It will be a great challenge. But our players have come each week with a workmanlike mentality.”
In recent years, Georgia has responded well after suffering such lopsided losses. In 2012, the Bulldogs lost 35-7 to South Carolina before winning the remainder of their regular-season games and reaching the SEC championship game.
A year ago, Georgia fell to Florida 38-20 rather unexpectedly and defeated Kentucky 63-31 the week after.
A central theme to Georgia’s preparation this week has been to avoid the self-inflicted wounds that resulted in missed run assignments, a blocked punt and coverage breakdowns against the Crimson Tide.
“We’re not talking about Alabama, but when you make so many mistakes like that, it comes down to what you do, not so much what the other team does,” Georgia inside linebacker Jake Ganus said. “So we’re just focusing on ourselves and just trying to be the best team we can be.”
Georgia wants to show it is still a team to be reckoned with in the conference, and that it will compete for an SEC title. The Volunteers want to quell the notion they‘re still lost in a post-Fulmer funk, considering the program is 37-43 since 2009. Under Fulmer, Tennessee won 10 games in a season nine times and captured the 1998 national championship.
“We never talk about our backs are against the wall,” Jones said. “I always view every game as a must-win, particularly in this conference.”
A lot will be on the line for both teams this weekend. For Georgia, a win keeps its hopes of reaching Atlanta still on the forefront.
“I think we all understand that. The team from the East and the team from the West meet, whoever has the best conference record,” receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “I think that’s something that’s already understood walking into the stadium on Saturday.”