Tennessee football is looking to bounce back from its worst defeat of the Josh Heupel era this Saturday when they welcome No. 1 Georgia to Neyland Staidum in Knoxville.
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.
How have you seen Georgia improve over the course of the season?
“I think it all starts on the offensive side of the ball because of all the changes there this season. Mike Bobo taking over as the offensive coordinator. Carson Beck taking over for multi-year starter Stetson Bennett. That was obviously a lot of change that happened at one time. And a lot of people said that Georgia was just going to plug and play Carson Beck and it was going to be an easy transition because of all the weapons that were around him— Brock Bowers, Ladd McConkey and portal receivers RaRa Thomas and Dominic Lovett. Early in the season it wasn’t as simple as that. It took time for Beck to get comfortable.
Looking back on it, that probably should have been the expectation. It was probably unfair to expect him to step in and do what the six-year quarterback was doing. He’s gotten more comfortable as the season has gone alone. Mike Bobo has gotten more comfortable as the season’s gone along with the weapons that he’s had and we’ve seen Georgia progress. They’ve gotten healthier too. Getting Brock Bowers back was big but you look at earlier in the season and they’ve had a really banged up running back room. Daijuan Edwards and Kendall Milton have gotten healthy which has been big for the running back room. Ladd McConkey missed a couple games with back spasms and is back and playing his best football. This Georgia offense is finally healthy and has a full deck of cards and I think that’s where we’ve seen the improvement the most as the season’s gone on.”
Georgia has struggled in its two road games. Do you buy or sell that as a concern for this Georgia team?
“I wouldn’t say they struggled at Vanderbilt. I’m going to hold on that stock even though that wasn’t an option. I don’t think we’ve seen Georgia play in an atmosphere like they will on Saturday in quite some time. Jordan-Hare Stadium is obviously an incredible atmosphere and Georgia struggled in that one. It was not their best game. It took a heroic fourth quarter from Brock Bowers to walk out of there with a win. That was this team’s fifth game of the season and first game on the road. First game on the road for a new starting quarterback. They struggled that day but this is a different Georgia team entering game 11 than entering game five. I think that this team has grown. I think we’ll be able to tell a lot about this Georgia team and just how much they have grown by how they perform in Neyland compared to Jordan-Hare. I throw that Vanderbilt game out. It’s such a weird atmosphere there with all the construction and the early kick off. Georgia approached that a little bit like a scrimmage of sorts before its open date. If you go back and watch that game they were working through some things. They were asking guys to do different things.”
This Georgia defense is a little bit weaker than those the past few years by the numbers. Do you feel like that’s accurate? What areas have taken a step back and what areas are just as good as they’ve been?
“There’s been no drop off in the secondary. Tykee Smith has really blossomed since taking on a full-time starters role at STAR. Kamari Lassiter is really growing up in his second season as a starter. There’s been no dropoff in the secondary. The second cornerback spot may not be as strong as it was last year. Daylen Everette is a first-year starter there and is a talented player but has gotten picked on. And some of that makes sense. If I’m an opposing offense I’m not throwing at Kamari Lassiter. I’m going the opposite direction every time. Georgia has played a lot of really good receivers this year with Xavier Lagette at South Carolina, Luther Burden at Missouri, Tre Harris at Ole Miss and Ricky Pearsall at Florida. It’s been some challenging matchups and they’ve sort of picked on Daylen Everette. But to me, I don’t see much of a drop off in the secondary.
Where there has been a drop off is the front seven and understandably so. You look at the NFL Draft the last two years you have four defensive linemen taken. Three inside linebackers taken. You have two outside linebackers taken. That’s nine guys in a front seven. To replace that much over the course of a two-year span is absolutely insane. Obviously Georgia has a ton of talent and has been able to replace those guys well. Statistically speaking, this team is near or at the top of the SEC in almost every defensive category. They’ve held their own but they haven’t passed the eye test the way they have the last few years. I think it’s because they’re lacking that really disruptive force up front. They’ve had some veteran guys rotate up front. It’s a lot of guys that have been around the program for a while and there’s a reason that they’ve been around the program for a while and haven’t been in this role. It’s because they’ve had both a lot more talented players in front of them and maybe they’re just not as naturally talented as some of those guys. We’ve seen a bit of a drop off up front and that puts a lot of pressure on the linebackers. They’re asking those guys to do a lot and teams have been able to find their weaknesses and attack them. Especially with perimeter running. You’re not going to run north-south on Georgia. Georgia is just too talented up the middle. Bodies are too big. Linebackers are too athletic, strong and sound to let that happen. But to get east-west and hit those edges— teams have been able to do that.”
What’s a key or a couple keys for Georgia to earn the win?
“Obviously they have to protect the quarterback. They played a talented pass rushing unit last week and Carson Beck didn’t get touched. Ole Miss quite literally did not touch him. If they can replicate that, it’s obviously huge against a Tennessee pass rush and defense that’s near the top of the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss. It starts with protecting the quarterback and if they can do that they have enough weapons to find ways to make plays.
Defensively, it’s all about playing assignment football. Tennessee is obviously banged up at receiver and probably not as explosive as they were last year. But that tempo and pace that they go at can create problems for opponents. It means everything you do on a down-to-down and snap-to-snap basis has to be done that much quicker. They’re going to be asked to do a lot and it comes down to playing fundamentally sound football on the defensive side of the football. Georgia will be without the quarterback of its defense— linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson. It’ll be interesting to see how they do without him against an offense that puts that pressure on you. It feels like this defense is not perfect in any area. Every aspect of this defense has its flaws. If they play fundamentally sound they can make up for that with the talent that they have and the fundamentals that they play with. But that puts a lot of pressure on them to live up to that expectation that’s been set out for them.”
Georgia 38, Tennessee 17