KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee defensive end Corey Vereen believes the Volunteers have some unfinished business to take care of Saturday at No. 12 Georgia.
The Vols lost a 34-31 thriller to Georgia last year after allowing a tying touchdown with five seconds left in regulation and having an overtime touchdown overturned via replay. Tennessee (2-1, 0-0 Southeastern Conference) is seeking to avenge that loss and end a four-game skid in this series.
”You can feel it around campus, the locker room, the weight room,” Vereen said. ”Everybody is locked in and ready to go. This is a big game.”
Although Tennessee lost to Georgia last year, it considered the close call evidence of how far the program had progressed in the first year of Butch Jones’ coaching tenure. Tennessee rallied from an early 14-point deficit to put itself on the brink of victory. In its next game, the Vols edged No. 11 South Carolina 23-21 to end a 19-game losing streak against Top 25 foes.
Now the Vols want to show how much they’ve progressed since then.
”We came up short, and at the end of the day, it’s all about winning football games,” Jones said. ”I thought it did help in our overall development because I thought our team showed some perseverance. I thought we battled adversity.”
Last year’s game also represented a turning point of sorts for Georgia (2-1, 0-1). Running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley tore their anterior cruciate ligaments that day to continue the wave of injuries that eventually caught up to the Bulldogs. Georgia, ranked sixth at the time it faced Tennessee, split its final eight games of the season.
Much has changed in the year since that game.
Tennessee has replaced its entire starting offensive and defensive lines from last year’s team. Jones said only one-third of the members of the Vols’ traveling squad this week played against Georgia last season. Georgia star running back Todd Gurley, who averages 9.8 yards per carry, didn’t play against Tennessee last year because of an ankle injury.
”We definitely did overcome a lot of adversity (against Tennessee last year), and I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a team, especially in an environment like that,” Georgia center David Andrews said. ”But now the tables have turned. We’re on our home field, and we have a healthy team. We just need to go out there and take care of business.”
Although this game features plenty of new faces, the Vols who did play against Georgia last year have plenty of incentive.
This represents a chance for wide receiver Alton ”Pig” Howard to atone for his costly mistake in last year’s game. Howard appeared to put Tennessee ahead in overtime last year as he dove toward the right corner of the end zone from 7 yards out, but replays showed he fumbled before the ball crossed the goal line, turning his potential touchdown into a touchback. Howard’s turnover led to Marshall Morgan’s game-winning 42-yard field goal.
”We definitely caught a break with the fumble through the end zone that gave us a chance just to make the kick and end it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
This also represents a particularly important game for Tennessee’s contingent of Georgia residents. Tennessee has four defensive starters from Georgia high schools: linebacker A.J. Johnson, safety Brian Randolph and cornerbacks Justin Coleman and Cam Sutton. Randolph says he remembers playing ”backyard football” with Bulldogs quarterback Hutson Mason when both were growing up in Marietta.
For Johnson, a senior, this represents his final chance to beat his home-state team.
”We have to go down there for one thing and that’s to get the `W,’ ” Johnson said. ”I know we haven’t beaten them since I’ve been here, so that’s the main goal.”
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Athens, Georgia, contributed to this report.