- David Ching, SEC reporter
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Much has been made of Georgia's improvement at third-down defense, but Tennessee's offense has made even greater strides on third down this season.
The Volunteers, who will play host to Georgia on Saturday night, lead the nation in third-down conversion percentage by achieving a first down on 62 percent of their third-down plays. This after ranking 88th out of 120 FCS teams last year at 36.5 percent.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley attributed the improvement to sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray's increasing comfort level while directing the Vols' offense.
"When he knows what to do, that's the key. His accuracy breaks down when he's not sure," Dooley said. "So anytime when we do new stuff, it just takes a little while. And then once he gets it he's got it. There's no question that's been the reason we've had success on third down the way we have, is because of his accuracy. He makes it real easy."
Georgia's defense might represent the toughest test the Vols have faced in that area, however, as the Bulldogs are second in the nation in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 25.4 percent of the time. They were 79th nationally last year at 42 percent.
"So far it's been our strength on defense is getting them off the field," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "That's the team [defensive coordinator Todd] Grantham uses: 'Let's get them off the field.' You fight like mad to get them in a third-down situation, and if you don't win that down, you've got to start all over again. We've done a much better job this season in that regard. That's a great thing."
Facing the boobirds
When it comes to disappointing fans from their home states, Georgia receiver Marlon Brown and Tennessee wideout Da'Rick Rogers could trade stories.
Brown is a Memphis native and a former five-star prospect who spurned the home-state Vols to sign with Georgia in 2009. The following year, Rogers, a Calhoun, Ga., native, decommitted from Georgia just before signing day and signed with Tennessee.
"The day I committed, after I was chilling with my family and friends, I was like, 'Man, those two times I play Tennessee, I'm going to get booed. I know I am,' " Brown recalled.
He was right. Brown was loudly booed when the Bulldogs visited Knoxville in 2009, and Georgia's fans returned the favor for Rogers last year when the Vols came to Athens.
"Being booed by a whole stadium, that was new to me. It was crazy to hear that," Rogers said. "It didn't really affect me, it was just a new environment."
Unintentional silent count
Georgia's offense would have practiced with a silent snap count this week anyway, in preparation for a noisy Neyland Stadium, but quarterback Aaron Murray might have made the decision to go silent an easy one.
The sophomore was losing his voice when he met with reporters this week.
"I'm just preparing our guys for not being able to hear me anyways by being a little sick, I guess," Murray laughed.
Georgia's quarterbacks use hand signals to communicate at loud away venues anyway, so Murray might have picked a good week to have a cold that affected the decibel level of his cadences.
"I hope [it's not a cold]," Murray said. "I don't know what it is, but hopefully it'll be fine by Saturday."
The Bulldogs will wear a pink ribbon sticker -- the symbol for breast cancer awareness -- on their helmets Saturday featuring the initials KDF, recognizing senior fullback Bruce Figgins' mother, Kim.
Kim Figgins was treated recently for cancer, Richt said.
"We just want to let her know we love her and we care about her very much, and we pray that everything comes out well," Richt said. "We pray for everybody who's dealing with any kind of cancer right now, for that matter."
Running back Richard Samuel (shoulder) practiced in a green no-contact jersey Wednesday, but Richt said it was precautionary and expects Samuel to play at Tennessee.
Richt said offensive lineman Chris Burnette (knee) and cornerback Damian Swann (groin) are on track to return from injuries that kept them out of last week's game against Mississippi State. Burnette practiced in green Wednesday, but Swann was back in a normal white jersey.
Receiver Israel Troupe (knee) and cornerback Brandon Boykin (teeth) also practiced in green.
Richt said no decision has been made as to whether offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant might apply for a sixth year of eligibility.
Sturdivant will miss this season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during the spring. He also missed the entire 2008 season with a torn ACL and all but one game in 2009 with another ACL tear.
In his initial comments to reporters after Wednesday's practice, Richt said with a smile that he would not reveal who will replace suspended outside linebacker Cornelius Washington in the starting lineup. "If it has to do with who's playing in Cornelius' spot, I refuse to answer that question." Asked if he knew the identity of the new starter, Richt paused and said, "Maybe." Grantham also played coy on the subject Tuesday. ... The Bulldogs practiced to the blaring sounds of Tennessee's fight song, "Rocky Top," for much of Tuesday and Wednesday's practice and will hear more of it during today's practice at Sanford Stadium. Asked whether he's tired of hearing the song yet, Richt joked, "I'm getting there."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Georgia's defense has dramatically improved on third down. So has Tennessee's offense. Something have to give on Saturday.