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Examining the matchups: No. 14 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Georgia

Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

No. 14 Tennessee and No. 3 Georgia square off in a pivotal early-season SEC East matchup this Saturday in Athens. Ahead of Saturday’s rivalry game, Rocky Top Insider takes a look at which team has what advantage over the other.

Here’s a look at the matchups within the matchup between the Vols and Bulldogs:

Tennessee’s passing attack vs. Georgia’s pass defense

Tennessee’s offensive success starts and ends with its offensive line. The Vols have one of the best o-lines in the country, especially when run-blocking. But Tennessee’s passing attack remains a question, mainly because of Jarrett Guarantano. The Vols also have to replace Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Guarantano and the new-look receiver room has been productive through two games, but Saturday will be the first true test of the season.

Georgia’s secondary is filled with NFL talent in Richard LeCounte at strong safety, and starting cornerbacks Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes. Backup corner DJ Daniel, nicklebacks Mark Webb and Tyrique Stevenson, and starting free safety Lewis Cine are also really talented players. The Bulldog secondary will be a tough test for a new-look Tennessee passing attack that is still trying to prove itself against elite teams.

Edge: Georgia

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Georgia’s passing attack vs. Tennessee’s pass defense

Each secondary has the advantage in Saturday’s matchup. The Vols secondary has struggled with miscommunications at times to begin the season, but it’s also been due to the unit being banged up. Jeremy Pruitt’s secondary will finally be at full strength on Saturday, however. Senior nickle Shawn Shamburger will play after missing the first two games and though Bryce Thompson only played on third downs against Missouri, he’s “fine” for Georgia according to Pruitt.

Having Shamburger back in the slot and Thompson back at corner instead of safety will be a huge boost for the Vols secondary. Georgia’s wide receiver room is very talented, but the group is still trying to sort through roles behind George Pickens and Kearis Jackson. Pickens vs. Alontae Taylor/Thompson, as well as Jackson vs. Shamburger in the slot will determine who wins this matchup.

Tennessee’s secondary is deeper than Georgia’s wide receiver room at the moment. Stetson Bennett is going to have to continue to prove that he can make winning plays and not solely arrive on the talent around him as well.

Edge: Tennessee

Tennessee’s offensive line vs. Georgia’s defensive front

Tennessee’s offensive line has the chance to be elite, but it’s not yet. It’ll be just Cade Mays’ second game in a Tennessee uniform on Saturday, and as good as the Vols’ o-line already is, they’re still trying to gel together after several linemen missed a healthy chunk of fall camp due to quarantine protocols.

The Vols absolutely have the ability to win this matchup on Saturday, but Georgia’s defensive front is already elite. Jordan Davis, Azeez Ojulari, Monty Rice, Nakobe Dean, Nolan Smith, Jermaine Johnson, Malik Herring, Devonte Wyatt, Travon Walker, Jalen Carter, Adam Anderson and Quay Walker will all play football professionally. This group is only allowing 2.3 yards per carry and will give everything Tennessee’s offensive line can handle on Saturday. And more.

Edge: Georgia

Tennessee’s rushing attack vs. Georgia’s rush defense

We all know Tennessee’s offensive line is one of the best in the country, as we’ve already illustrated. But this may be the only game on the 2020 schedule in which it’s viewed as the underdog in its matchup with an opposing front seven. Alabama is the only other team on the schedule in which Tennessee’s o-line may be viewed as the underdog in its matchup on paper.

Tennessee’s rushing attack may be great, but Georgia’s rush defense may simply be better. Through two games, Georgia’s defense is allowing just 2.3 yards per carry on 50 attempts and has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. The Bulldogs only allowed two rushing touchdowns all of last season and both were to opposing quarterbacks.

Edge: Georgia

Georgia’s rushing attack vs. Tennessee’s rush defense

Tennessee’s rushing defense hasn’t necessarily gotten off to a strong start given the ability of the two opposing offenses it’s faced to begin the season. Statistically speaking, the Vols rank 23rd nationally in rush defense, but that statistic is somewhat misleading when you take into consideration that lost yards off of sacks have lowered the total number of rushing yards.

Opposing running backs from South Carolina and Missouri averaged 4.16 yards per carry against Tennessee which is not good enough to beat teams like Georgia. If the Vols are truly going to flirt with upsetting the Bulldogs, they’re rush defense must take a big step forward this weekend against a very talented Georgia offensive line that continually opens up holes for talented back Zamir White to run through.

Edge: Georgia

Tennessee’s special teams vs. Georgia’s special teams

Both special team units are good, but Georgia’s special teams has been better through two games than Tennessee’s. The Bulldogs have been more efficient in each department of special teams, too.

At kicker, Georgia’s Jack Podlesny is 4-for-5 on the young season while Tennessee’s Brent Cimaglia has missed two kicks in two games. Podlesny has yet to make a field goal from further than 40-yards out, however.

Georgia punter Jake Camarda is one of the best in the country. While Tennessee’s Paxton Brooks is averaging a solid 41.63 yards per punt, Camarda is averaging 50.22 yards on nine punts.

Both teams have done a good job returning kicks in a small sample size.

Edge: Georgia

Tennessee’s coaching staff vs. Georgia’s coaching staff

It’s weird to say because of the success that Kirby Smart has already had in Athens, but I trust Jeremy Pruitt as a head coach more than I trust Smart as a head coach. Smart had the benefit of taking over a program that was already set up for success. Pruitt did not have that luxury. If you flipped each situation, I’d venture to say Pruitt would have had slightly more success by now.

As SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic said on The Swain Event Tuesday morning, Pruitt is the best “in-game defensive mind in college football.” Few, if any, would know better than Cubelic.

Edge: Tennessee

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