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Florida loss opens door for Bulldogs, Vols

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer's first words to his team in preparation for No. 12 Georgia had nothing to do with the Bulldogs.

'I actually said, 'War Damn Eagle,' he said. 'That's the first thing I said, to be honest with you.'

Fulmer invoked the battle cry of Auburn because he knew the Tigers' surprise 20-17 win over No. 9 Florida last Saturday opens up the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division race for both the Volunteers and the Bulldogs.

Since the SEC expanded to two divisions in 1992, only Florida, Tennessee and Georgia have won the Eastern Division. While today's matchup between the Volunteers (2-2, 0-1 SEC) and the Bulldogs (4-1, 2-1) won't determine the division winner, the loser of the game likely will be out of contention.

'Both teams want to feel like they are still in the race. We are right now, but after today one team's hopes will be a lot dimmer,' Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

The Bulldogs have recent history on their side. The visiting team has won the last four games in this series and Richt has never lost in Knoxville.

Georgia also wants to avenge last year's 51-33 loss to Tennessee, a game which featured 37 second half points from the Vols. The 51 points were the second most ever put up by a Georgia opponent at Sanford Stadium.

Tennessee has lost against its last four ranked opponents, dating back to last season, and suffered Fulmer's worse loss as coach in a 59-20 thumping by Florida in Gainesville.

The Vols have also struggled this season with executing tackles and allowing opponents big offensive plays. The defense ranks 88th nationally in rushing defense and 110th in scoring defense.

That could benefit Georgia's dynamic running duo of Thomas Brown and Knowshon Moreno, who combined for 277 yards rushing against Mississippi last week. Moreno has been averaging 86.4 yards rushing per game for Georgia, while Brown has put up another 78.6 average yards rushing per game.

Tailback Kregg Lumpkin, who has been recovering from thumb surgery, is expected to return against Tennessee. Lumpkin led Bulldog rushing last year in the Vols' win with 78 yards.

'We have to play the run well, better than we have done to this point,' Fulmer said. 'Their two backs are quality backs, hard to tackle and certainly a challenge for anyone that plays them.'

Fulmer should also worry about Buford grad Mikey Henderson returning punts for Georgia. Henderson is averaging 14.8 yards on punts and had a 63-yard return in a 35-14 win against Oklahoma State.

Tennessee ranks last nationally in punt return defense, allowing an average 28.8 yards per return, and is still the only team to give up two punt returns for touchdowns. The Vols allowed Henderson an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown last year.

Fulmer said his players have taken advantage of their off week, focusing on fundamentals - especially tackling - and have shown more consistency during practice.

'I like the focus and intensity of the guys,' he said. 'When you want something really, really bad, you've gotta work your butt off to gain confidence in yourself. And you gain confidence in yourself by doing things consistently.'

The off week also allowed players suffering minor injuries, bumps and bruises to heal. Quarterback Erik Ainge this week shed the guard he's been wearing all season to protect his broken right pinky finger.

The broken finger hasn't done too much to stop Ainge, who leads the SEC in passing, with an average 282.5 yards per game. Ainge has found an arsenal of weapons in receivers Lucas Taylor, Austin Rogers and Josh Briscoe.

'Ainge, you saw what he did last year. We just hope we get a little fortunate this year,' Georgia cornerback Asher Allen said.

Ainge said he earned some confidence from the Vols' performance last year at Georgia, but knows that it's no indication of how Tennessee will play this year.

Tennessee faces a turning point against the Bulldogs. A win would help the Vols prove that they are better than they appeared in this season's losses to Florida and California.

A loss would put them on track to a season similar to the one in 2005 when Tennessee went 5-6 with no bowl game. A loss could also threaten Fulmer's job considering Tennessee's path gets no easier with upcoming games against Alabama, No. 11 South Carolina, Arkansas and No. 8 Kentucky.

Ainge knows the importance of this game, but he's also not treating it different than any other game.

'We understand that winning or losing this game puts us in good or a bad spot as far as the SEC East,' he said. '(But) the next big one you play is always the biggest game you'll ever play.'

SideBar: GEORGIA AT TENNESSEE

When: Today, 3:30 p.m.

Where: Knoxville, Tenn.

TV/Radio: CBS/750-AM