The circumstances are a bit different for these teams, but, in most cases, if you had asked fans of each program before the season if they would be happy with how the season has unfolded so far for both Tennessee and Georgia, the answer would be an overwhelming “no.”
The circumstances are more dire for Tennessee. The Vols, if they can’t find the win column Saturday, are staring down the barrel of a 2-4 start with a long bye week coming up, followed by a trip to Alabama, a team that just annihilated this UGA team last week. A UT team that many predicted to contend in the East, possibly win 9+ games and to take a huge step forward this season will then be left with a second-half goal of just finding a way to get back to any kind of bowl game.
There are bigger questions than just UT’s season record on the line, however. With an impressive list of recruits expected in town, can the Vols get some momentum in that area going again? And can Butch Jones, no doubt an embattled figure after the last few weeks, make a statement and instill confidence in not only the team, but the fan base as well? A win wouldn’t 100% answer all those questions, but it’d be a much-needed development for a program that has shown potential this year, yet has virtually nothing to show for it.
Georgia needs this one too, though. Mark Richt’s label of being unable to consistently win the big game continues to stick to him after the Bulldogs were shelled by Alabama with the national spotlight on them last week. After falling short in the East race the past two years to Missouri, and with Florida clearly on the rise this year, a loss to Tennessee could spell trouble for a coach that is almost universally admired for the stability he’s brought to Georgia, but also hasn’t been able to take Georgia to the championship level that fans aspire to.
There’s a lot swirling off the field, but, between the lines, this should be an interesting matchup. Tennessee got overpowered by Arkansas last week and UGA brings a similar physical style of play into Neyland Stadium. The Bulldogs don’t have the massive offensive line that the Razorbacks did, but they are athletic and experienced on that unit, and running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are going to make any offensive line look impressive. Stopping the Georgia rushing attack will be key for Tennessee, but that’s clearly easier said than done. If Tennessee can put this game into the hands of Greyson Lambert, the Vols have a decent shot to pull off the upset.
Offensively, Tennessee must get Joshua Dobbs going. History says the Vols will not win this game unless Dobbs is a factor on the ground. But UT can’t rely on only that. The Vols need 100+ yards from Jalen Hurd again, and while it may be unrealistic to ask for the passing attack to light up the Bulldogs, Tennessee must execute enough plays in that area to keep UGA honest. And with a banged-up offensive line, Tennessee must step up and block Jordan Jenkins to prevent too many negative plays from setting them back.
It’s a lot to ask for a team that hasn’t shown it knows how to win this year. But history says the Vols will have a chance. UT lost its last four games to Georgia by an average margin of just 5.25 points per game. The Vols have been within a possession in every loss this year too.
Tennessee has played some of its best games as a program against Georgia in the past decade, with the 2006, 2007 and 2009 matchups all standing out as very impressive and much-needed performances for the Vols in this series. Will they add another one on Saturday? They certainly can, but that’s not the question. I’ll say they won’t and UT will be left with even more questions going forward.
Pick: Georgia 28-24
MVP: OLB Jordan Jenkins
Especially if Tennessee has to shuffle its offensive line and move Mack Crowder in at center and bump Coleman Thomas out to tackle, I have doubts about Tennessee’s ability to block this Georgia defensive front. The numbers haven’t been huge for that group this year, but Jenkins has been the best of the bunch with three sacks, 7.5 TFLs and nine QB hurries. Negative plays kill this Tennessee offense because the Vols can’t consistently throw the ball down the field to make up for them. I’m picking Jenkins as a representative of a UGA defensive front that could disrupt UT’s offense enough that the Vols can’t recover.
In my preseason prediction, I had the Vols sitting at 4-1 at this point in the season, and, in my opinion, that is the worst they should be right now. The Vols have blown 13-point leads (or more) against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas…which means that they are good enough to win and should be undefeated. 2-3 is a scary place to be at this point in the season, and the Vols really need a win this weekend to begin turning this thing in the right direction. Georgia presents a lot of challenges, however, and will be an interesting opponent for the Vols in a “must-win” game for Butch Jones and Team 119.
Georgia reminds me a lot of Arkansas in some ways…especially offensively. They are going to rely on Nick Chubb to wear down Tennessee’s defense, while also taking defenders out of the passing game to open up throwing lanes for quarterback Greyson Lambert. Lambert struggled mightily last week against Alabama, going 10-of-24 for 86 yards and an interception before being pulled from the game in favor of Brice Ramsey. Ramsey finished his day 1-of-6 for 20 yards and two interceptions. Nick Chubb carried the ball 20 times against the Tide for 146 yards and a touchdown, but the touchdown came on an 83-yard scamper late in the game when the Alabama starters were already on the bench. Without that carry, Chubb’s stat-line is very different: 19 carries for 63 yards…which makes for a very pedestrian 3.3 yards per carry for the sophomore sensation.
Can Tennessee stop Chubb and force Georgia to throw? Can they take advantage of questionable decision-making by Greyson Lambert? It’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the Vol defense right now, but they have had stretches of outstanding play this season. Georgia’s scheme is fairly simple offensively – much like Arkansas’ was – but the Vols have to prove they can tackle well for 60 minutes and avoid letting Georgia playmakers turn average plays into gamebreakers. Sound tackling and STOPPING THE ROLL-OUT PASS (hint hint) will go a long way towards slowing down Georgia.
Offensively….yikes. Where do we begin. Alabama averaged just over four yards per carry against Georgia’s defense, including some solid runs by quarterback Jake Coker (who will NEVER be confused for a dual threat quarterback), so Tennessee should have an opportunity to make an impact on the ground. I expect them to mix it up with Hurd, Kamara and Dobbs a good bit until they figure out where Georgia is weakest against the run. It may not matter, however, unless the Vols can prove that the passing game is lethal enough to make big plays down the field. Jake Coker averaged over 17 yards per completion against Georgia last week, and many of those were huge plays down the field that really broke the back of the Bulldog defense. Can the Vols get players open down the field and deliver accurate passes to them? If they can, then they will have a chance to pull the upset and carry some much-needed momentum into the bye week.
Tennessee truly could win this game. They are talented enough and their strengths match up well with what Georgia does on both sides of the ball. But how can you pick this team right now? I suppose there is a chance that all of the week’s…umm…”events” caused this team to focus and pull closer together, but I’ll have to see it to believe it. The Smokey Grays will look good, but I’m afraid that the record goes to 2-4 on the season and 0-3 all-time in the grays. I’m going with another heartbreaker until this team proves that they can get over the hump.
Pick: Georgia 31-28
MVP: RB Nick Chubb
If Georgia wins, it will be because this guy has a huge game. Chubb is big, physical, fast and strong and always finds away to break extra tackles and rack up additional yards. Tennessee had no answer for Todd Gurley last year on defense, and I’m afraid that Chubb will prove too talented for the Vol defense in this one. After seeing what Alex Collins did to the Vols last week, you have to think that Chubb is licking his chops in anticipation for this game.
Both teams desperately need this game and both teams have head coaches that need a victory to get their respective fanbases back. Neither team has been particularly inspiring through the air and both have been punishing, at times, on the ground.
I expect Tennessee’s defense to bounce back a bit after a deflating performance against Arkansas. Jancek and Co. have game planned well against Georgia the last two seasons and I don’t see that changing in Neyland this weekend.
Defensively, Georgia has been significantly better than Tennessee, though the Vols have scored points on them the last two seasons. I expect Dobbs to get going a little bit, at least with his legs, and for Hurd and Kamara to have a big day. Eventually, though, the Vols are going to have to beat someone through the air. How effectively they’re able to do that Saturday will determine the outcome.
I’ve gone back and forth on this game all week. Which Georgia team will show up? Will Tennessee look sedated like they did the second half against Arkansas? I tried to, again, give Tennessee the benefit of the doubt last week and they laid an egg. For the Vols to earn the victory, they’ll probably have to play their best game of Jones’ tenure. With everything swirling around the program, I just can’t see that happening.
Pick: Georgia 34-30
MVP: RB Nick Chubb
Chubb will rush for over 150 yards and break a couple of long back breaking runs late in the game that prove to be the difference. Tennessee bottled him up last year, but won’t be so fortunate this season.