ATHENS, Ga. — Derek Dooley has good credentials when it comes to Georgia football history.
As the son of former longtime Georgia coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, Derek Dooley was 12 when the Bulldogs won the 1980 national championship. He kept his allegiance to his father’s team until launching his playing career at Virginia.
So when Derek Dooley, now in his third year as Tennessee’s coach, seeks to place perspective on the No. 5 Georgia team which plays the Vols today, it qualifies as an expert opinion.
“They are probably playing as good as I’ve seen them in a long time,” Dooley said.
The Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) have scored more than 40 points in each of their first four games.
Georgia has also won two straight games in the series, including a 41-14 decision in Athens two years ago and a 20-12 victory at Tennessee last year.
This season’s matchup features the highest-scoring teams in the SEC. Georgia is averaging 47.5 points per game and Tennessee is at 38.2.
Tennessee (3-1, 0-1 SEC) is equipped to keep pace because of Tyler Bray, who is tied for the NCAA lead with 12 touchdown passes, The Vols also boast top talent at wide receiver with Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Georgia coach Mark Richt says Bray is “one of the most talented passers that I’ve seen in a while.”
“They have some tremendously skilled receivers,” Richt said. “They’ve got a vertical passing game that I know I envy. We like to throw it down the field, but they can really lay it out there good.”
Georgia’s attack has good balance. Freshman tailback Todd Gurley has 406 yards rushing and six touchdowns. Gurley is averaging 9.2 yards per carry. Keith Marshall, another freshman, has 264 yards rushing with three touchdowns.
“They’ve had success early, and they’ve earned it,” Richt said. “They’ve worked hard.”
Aaron Murray isn’t far behind Bray’s pace. Murray, a junior in his third season starting, has passed for 10 touchdowns with only two interceptions.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Dooley said of Murray. “He’s got a very strong arm. He’s got a lot of snaps under his belt. They don’t change a lot offensively in what they do. ... He’s had a lot of work at getting good at what they do. You can just see him triggering the ball a lot quicker than he ever has. He’s more accurate than he’s been. That just comes with experience.”
Dooley said the Bulldogs are dangerous with their running game and play-action passes.
“They also can spread you out and drop it back,” Dooley said. “There’s really no weakness in what they’re doing right now.”
Georgia could have more help on offense. Malcolm Mitchell, the team’s second-leading receiver as a freshman in 2011, has been a starter at cornerback this season. He spent a full day of practice at receiver on Tuesday and appears headed for his most significant playing time on offense of the season.
Mitchell’s big-play potential gives Tennessee’s defense just one more reason to worry.
“It’s going to be tough because you don’t really know what to expect,” Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt said. “We’ll try to make them one-dimensional. I think that’s important.”
Georgia’s defense also has a weekly goal of trying to stop the run first and make opposing quarterbacks throw the ball. Richt said he doesn’t know if that’s a good idea when facing Bray, Hunter and Patterson.
“If I had those receivers and that quarterback, I’d have a hard time trying to stay balanced,” Richt said. “I like throwing the ball, and they’ve got great pass protectors. When you have those tackles like they do that don’t need any help, you can release five guys out and then you’ve got a guy that can spin it like Bray. I don’t know if I would sit there and say that I need to be totally balanced.”
Georgia’s defense could be at full strength for the first time. All-America safety Bacarri Rambo and starting linebacker Alec Ogletree are expected to return from four-game suspensions.
All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones already has 4 ½ sacks and an interception.
“If you are not aware of where he is he can just wreck your game plan because of his athleticism and ability to win on pass rush and be disruptive in the backfield,” Dooley said. “He just has one of those playmaking personalities. He wants to make a game-changing play and they move him around a little bit.”