Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
This week, Dawgs HQ’s beat writer Palmer Thombs discussed Georgia’s dominant defense, undefeated season and Saturday’s rivalry game at Neyland Stadium.
* Some answers have been shortened or edited for clarity.
Question: Georgia’s quarterback situation has been fluid this year. Why did Stetson Bennett start getting playing time and what’s Kirby Smart’s plan at that position as we approach the postseason?
Thombs: Kirby Smart’s plan is definitely an interesting taking point. Looking back on the quarterback situation this year it has definitely been the storyline of Georgia football. J.T. Daniels starts the season opener against Clemson then during the lead up to UAB in week two we learn about an oblique strain he was dealing with in the preseason. Stetson Bennett starts week two, Daniels returns for week three and four against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Then before Georgia’s top 10 matchup with Arkansas, the situation returns. This time it’s a lat strain and that’s caused Daniels to miss five straight starts. He did make his return to the field on Saturday and played in the second half when Georgia was up big.
Georgia fans targeted this timeline after the bye week for Daniels’ return. They take on Florida and that’s what people had circled as a potential return timeline. It’s a very similar injury to what Dak Prescott dealt with in the preseason for the Dallas Cowboys. It was something they didn’t want to put too much stress on. He was on a pitch count in practice.
In the meantime, Stetson Bennett has done nothing wrong on the field to lose his job. He went out in that UAB game for the first time since getting knocked out in the Florida game last year, when he was the team’s starter. He threw for five touchdowns, tied a school record in just one half of action. Sees limited action against South Carolina and Vanderbilt and then comes back and leads Georgia to a top 10 win over Arkansas, a ranked win at Auburn, another borderline top 10 game win against Kentucky. In terms of where Georgia is with the quarterback position, it’s Stetson’s team. It’s Stetson’s job to lose.
Q: Georgia has been the best team in the country from the jump this season. Is there a feeling that this season is National Championship or bust in Athens?
Thombs: It’s tough when you’re dealing with Georgia fans because you’re talking about a lot of people who have had their hearts broken year-after-year. There’s certainly a lot of excitement around this team. Georgia returns to the No. 1 spot in the AP and coaches poll for the first time since 2008 and then in the College Football Playoff poll since 2017. There were some odd similarities coming into the season between the 2017 team and 2021 team with guys electing to return. Georgia won that decision season with Jordan Davis coming back, Devonte Wyatt coming back, J.T. Daniels — obviously that’s played out the way it has — coming back, Zamir White and James Cook come back. It felt like all the pieces were there for them to be super successful this season and they have been. That is certainly exciting people but Georgia fans know what the challenges are down the road of having to get over that hurdle of beating Alabama. It’s something that’s plagued Kirby Smart in his time at Georgia, beating Alabama. This is certainly a team that’s capable of doing it and Georgia fans would love to see the Bulldogs play Alabama in the SEC title game and have a chance to do it.
Q: What’s the best part of Georgia’s dominant defense?
Thombs: The front seven is where this team is built. I think I saw a stat last night, they’re the first team since the 90s to allow less than 14 points to each of their opponents through the first nine games of the season. This front seven is where this defense is built and predicated. The back end of the defense was a question mark coming into the season having lost three cornerbacks to the NFL Draft, a safety, a STAR to the transfer portal. All in all, it was eight guys gone from last year’s secondary. That’s where concern was. It was going to be a talented group but a young group. The Bulldogs knew the pressure would be on the front seven with Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt coming back. Travon Walker and Jalen Carter are two more guys that didn’t have the chance to go pro but are certainly NFL caliber players. The pieces were there. The ability to stop the run is what Kirby Smart has always based his defenses around, even going back to the times when he was defensive coordinator at Alabama. Georgia puts you in situations where you have to pass the ball because they’re going to get you in second-and-long and third-and-long and they’re not going to let you put them in a situation where they’re guessing. They get it where they know you have to pass the ball and they have the edge rushers to get to the quarterback and put pressure on you, whether that’s frome exotic pressures or natural rushes.
Q: Do you buy or sell (Georgia defensive tackle) Jordan Davis for Heisman talk?
Thombs: I’ll sell it. I just have a hard time seeing Jordan David win the Heisman. If you look back on the history of that award it’s been such an offensive award with only one defensive player winning it and not many being up for it. The ones that have been up for it had better stats for Jordan Davis.
I don’t think you can entirely tell the story of Jordan Davis just by looking at the stat sheet because he has such a big impact on the other players around him. With his size at 6-foot-6, 340 pounds, he eats two blockers at least. His saying all along has been “if there’s two on me, someone’s free.” He opens things up for everyone else.
I’ll see the Heisman hype on him, though. If Ndamukong Suh couldn’t win it with the season he had I don’t think Jordan Davis will win it. He’s the most impactful player on the best defense in the country, so I think it’s great the recognition he’s gotten but I don’t think a Heisman Trophy is in his future.
Q: What does any team — not just UT — have to do to beat Georgia?
Thombs: I think you have to limit their offense. With what Georgia has done defensively, there’s almost nothing you can do to beat this defense. I think, if there was a weakness in the defense it would be in the secondary where they’ve shown at times they can get burnt. The quarterback run has also hurt them at times. It can’t be a shootout because this defense is going to hold you to less than 21 points. It’s really hard to predict any offense scoring at will against this defense.
To me, if you’re an opposing team trying to beat Georgia you have to play sound defense and limit what Georgia is able to do offensively. Florida did it in the first half some before its offense ending up being the one that hurt them. With the questions they have at quarterback and how — not limited Stetson Bennet is — but he’s not a playmaker. He needs the pieces around him to be playing well. With the questions Georgia has at the receiver position— missing their best receiver George Pickens all year, Jermaine Burton has been limited, Kearis Jackson who was actually Georgia’s leader in receptions and receiving yards last year has been limited this year. You’ve seen guys step up there but it’s not the proven veterans that you expected coming into the season. The run game hasn’t been up to Georgia’s standards, the offensive line has some question marks due to injuries. Georgia has flaws on this offense. I’m curious to see when they go up against an elite defense how they will fare.
Q: What’s the biggest matchup advantage that Georgia has over Tennessee?
Thombs: I think it’s that interior defensive line. Knowing what Tennessee has on the interior of that defensive line, the question marks there, that’s where Georgia has always been strong with Jordan Davis in the middle and Jalen Carter coming in with fresh legs and also probably first round talent there. I think when you’re able to rotate in first round talent guys it says a lot about the talent of the interior of this defensive line. If that’s a weakness for Tennessee it’s certainly a strength for Georgia. That’s where I see the biggest advantage. Georgia is probably going to be able to put Tennessee in passing downs by stopping the run— they’ve been able to do that to most teams they’ve played this year— there’s no reason for me to expect Georgia to struggle against the run.
Q: Score prediction?
Thombs: Georgia 45, Tennessee 21