- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps no SEC program has blindsided Mark Richt's Georgia teams more viciously than Tennessee, which is why the build-up to this Saturday's meeting between the Bulldogs and Volunteers has a déjà vu feeling.
Coming off a 48-3 dismantling of Vanderbilt, No. 5 Georgia (4-0, 2-0 SEC) is a 14-point favorite against a Tennessee (3-1, 1-1 SEC) program that many believe is on shaky footing under third-year coach Derek Dooley.
If that sounds familiar, flash back to 2004 and 2007, when two of Georgia's best teams under Richt suffered defeats against the Vols that ultimately cost the Bulldogs two SEC East championships -- and possibly more.
The 2004 loss to Tennessee at Sanford Stadium, just a week after the Bulldogs manhandled defending BCS champion LSU 45-16, might be the biggest letdown in Richt's 12-year tenure. The Bulldogs were 4-0, ranked third in the nation and harboring national title hopes before freshman quarterback Erik Ainge -- who a week earlier threw four interceptions and lost a fumble in a 34-10 loss to Auburn -- led the 12.5-point-underdog Vols to a 19-14 win.
"I remember the year way back where we had the LSU game and just played superb in that LSU game and then the next week, they had a freshman quarterback … and he came in and they beat us," Richt said after the Vanderbilt win. "We've got to get our minds right and get this out of our system as quick as we can and get ready for the next challenge."
If series history has proven anything, it's that Tennessee -- even when a decided underdog -- has a habit of delivering unsettling losses to unfocused Georgia teams.
The 2009 Vols were 0-2 in SEC play under first-year coach Lane Kiffin when they blasted Georgia 45-19 at Neyland Stadium.
"They took it to us," recalled Georgia receiver Rantavious Wooten, who was a freshman on that Georgia team.
And if the 2004 UGA-UT game is not the biggest what-if moment in Richt's tenure, it might be the teams' meeeting in 2007. That year, unrest surrounding Vols coach Phil Fulmer was at an all-time high prior to kickoff.
On game day, the Knoxville News-Sentinel ran a spread with multiple anonymous former Tennessee players questioning the direction of the program. Some media members wondered whether Fulmer would survive the season as Tennessee's coach if Georgia embarrassed the 2-2 Vols on their home field.
Instead, Tennessee jumped on listless Georgia, building a 28-0 halftime lead en route to a 35-14 victory that eventually cost the Bulldogs any chance of riding a late-season hot streak into the BCS championship game.
Georgia won every game after that loss to the Vols, but could not overtake them in the SEC East standings -- which would have given them a chance to play a hobbled LSU club in the conference championship game. But by failing to even play for the SEC title, red-hot Georgia was left out of the BCS conversation and was forced to settle for thrashing undefeated Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl and a No. 2 final ranking.
So with that history of letdowns against Tennessee on its resume, Georgia's coaching staff has a talking point it can easily express to a confident club that has an all-important visit to No. 6 South Carolina ahead next week.
"I think it's great we're being successful, but our challenge as coaches is to do what we've been doing every week and remind these guys to ignore the noise outside the program and realize how they've won the first four games -- and that's going to work and prepare," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "I think our guys are really doing a nice job of being prepared every week."
It's not like they even need to make that point, however, Wooten said. The Bulldogs are an experienced enough team that they don't need to be reminded of the stakes involved as the season progresses and they try to remain in the SEC and BCS title races.
"We don't discuss it," Wooten said. "We just go out and know what we have to do. We know what we want to be at the end of the year and we know what we have to do."
And what they have to do is not look too far down the road, at the expense of looking past a Tennessee team with an offense that's explosive enough to ruin yet another Georgia team's title hopes.
Nobody knows that better than Memphis native Marlon Brown, who picked Georgia over his home-state Vols on signing day and who was also a freshman during the 2009 blowout loss.
Now a senior, Brown believes that the considerable experience on this season's Georgia roster will prevent the Bulldogs from becoming satisfied with their success to this point -- or from delivering an unfocused effort against Tennessee like those that were so costly in previous devastating losses to the Vols.
"That's what we've been doing every week, being able to focus just on that one team we play that week, so this week's no different for us, I feel like," Brown said. "Everybody keeps talking about last week, but it's Monday today. We ain't talking about last week anymore. We're talking about Tennessee."
18hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler