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Tennessee Football Preview: Vols Host Top-Ranked ‘Dawgs in Knoxville

Tennessee Georgia
Tennessee vs Georgia. Photos via university websites.

The Opponent: The University of Georgia was founded in 1785, and has been playing football since 1892. The Bulldogs are coached by one of their own in Kirby Smart. Smart has a 91-15 record since taking over for Mark Richt in 2016. Obviously, the coaching itself has been tremendous under Smart. However, Georgia has firmly cemented the cardinal truth of modern college football; to win championships you have to consistently bring in Top 5 recruiting classes. The Dawgs have overwhelmed opponents with talent in recent years. Georgia set an NFL record last spring by having a total of 25 players drafted in a two-year span. To put that into perspective, Tennessee had 23 players drafted total between the Dooley/Butch/Pruitt eras spanning an entire decade.

Are they any Good?: Yes, Georgia is very very good. In fact, the Bulldogs are historically good. Georgia is trying to be the first college football team to three-peat since 1936. Minnesota did it weeks after FDR won reelection in a landslide, 523-8 in the electoral college. The Bulldogs have won 27 straight games, or 37 straight regular season games. This team is a juggernaut. Georgia has broken in a lot of new starters this season, notably at quarterback and in the front seven defensively. There were times early in the season where the Bulldogs possibly looked susceptible, but those times appear passed. Since a sloppy win in Auburn, Georgia has outscored five straight SEC opponents 213 to 91.

What will this tell us about Tennessee?: Do the Vols have any magic moments this season? It is possible that Tennessee just spent them all last season, and college football karma is evening it out. The Vols seem destined for an 8-4 season. That’s not a total disaster, but certainly a letdown after going 10-2 in 2022. You look at the best games and best moments for this Tennessee team, and it feels lacking. You are looking at either a win over a Texas A&M team that paid $76 million to fire their coach, or a very familiar win in Lexington versus an average Kentucky bunch. To be fair, the Vols will need some true magic to win on Saturday, like maybe dark arts sorcery magic. It would be a historic win (more on that later), and one that could arguably salvage Tennessee’s entire season. At the very least though, Saturday should tell us what sort of pride this Tennessee locker room has after a humiliating loss in Missouri. Several upperclassmen have an additional year of eligibility left if they want to use it. What type of leaders are these players, and which ones do you really want back? Those are fair questions to ask at this point. Whether it is conjuring up a historic upset, or just showing some real fight, Saturday should tell us plenty about Tennessee.

What does Vegas say?: You could have bet this game over the summer at Georgia -7.5. The Dawgs were -8.5 prior to last Saturday’s contests. However, after Georgia’s domination of Ole Miss, and Tennessee’s egg-laying in Missouri, the game officially opened at Georgia -10 on Sunday. The line pretty quickly went to -10.5, where it has stayed most of the week. All available data suggests Georgia is a very heavy public play, which is not surprising given each team’s results last weekend. Consensus Over/Under is 58.5 for the game.

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Matchup to watch on Offense: Play cleaner football. We can take that suggestion a number of ways, but the reality is Tennessee will need to play an A+ game to pull off an upset on Saturday. It starts with penalties, where Tennessee ranks dead last in the SEC in every measure of penalization. Are SEC officials frustrating at times? Absolutely, but the numbers are overwhelming. Tennessee has not played like a disciplined team this season. The Vols would be better off looking in the mirror, versus the zebras. To be fair, last year’s team also accrued a lot of penalties. They had the firepower to overcome them though. The penalties this year always seem so costly. Offensively the Vols have to have clean blocking, especially on the perimeter where several big runs have been negated by holding calls against receivers. Tennessee’s offense already has more holding calls (17) through ten games this season than through all thirteen games last season. Obviously, the Vols have to protect the football, an area they have done pretty well this season. It is nearly impossible to imagine Tennessee losing the turnover battle on Saturday, and winning the football game. Finally, I think cleaner football means starting out well on offense. Georgia’s vaunted defense has actually given up touchdowns on four straight opening drives. The Vols have to cash in early, as their scripted drives are usually some of their best. Getting Joe Milton into an early rhythm is paramount for the Vols’ chances. The reality is penalties, turnovers, and the scoreboard are all ultimately indicative of playing clean football. At the same time, fans can see it and sense it with the eyeball test. Last weekend was not clean football for the Volunteers. They need to do much better on Saturday.

Matchup to watch on Defense: Get off the field whenever you get the chance. Missouri was 11 of 17 (65%) on third down last week. The Tigers seemed to be able to pick up first downs however they wanted, which clearly had a demoralizing effect on Tennessee’s defense. In their wins this season, Tennessee’s defense is only allowing opponents to convert on third down 31% of the time. That number is 52% for their three losses. It is not surprising that Georgia leads the SEC in third-down conversions (56%). It is a big task for Tennessee’s defense. The Vols were better at creating pressure through the pass rush last week, however, Brady Cook did a really good job of handling that pressure. The cushion that Tennessee’s secondary allowed made it very easy for the Tigers at times. Like in Gainesville, Tim Banks played more soft zone coverage. Georgia will happily take those underneath throws if Tennessee gives them up that easily. Ladd McConkey (thanks, Jeremy Pruitt) is the type of receiver who can have an early Thanksgiving feast against soft coverage. Brock Bowers is also back and creates a real matchup problem for Tennessee. It had to have been a tough week in the film room for Brian Jean-Mary’s unit. Tennessee’s linebacker play was abysmal in Columbia. For whatever reason, Aaron Beasley has not been nearly as productive the past few games. Elijah Herring was tough to watch against the Tigers. The reality is Jean-Mary does not have many other options at this point. He and Tim Banks need to put Tennessee’s linebackers in the best position to have success. The Vols will not be successful on third down if linebacker play is a liability.  This is a Georgia team meant to wear its opponents down as the game goes along, and they have the personnel to do so. Tennessee has to get off the field by any means necessary when they have the chance.

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Fun Fact: Georgia comes to Neyland Stadium as the consensus #1 team in America. Between Georgia and Alabama, Tennessee has had a few cracks at the #1 team over the last decade. However, you need to go back much further than that to find the last time the Vols knocked off the top ranked team in America. It was late September in 1985, and Bo Jackson had the Auburn Tigers rolling. Jackson had nearly 500 yards rushing in just two games leading into the matchup with Tennessee. However the Tigers were not ready for Tony Robinson, and the Vols raced out to a 24-0 lead before Bo Jackson exited the game. The final score was 38-20. It was one of the best wins of Johnny Majors’ coaching career at Tennessee, right behind the 1982 Alabama game. Thanks to the power of technology, you can watch the entire game right here. Can these Vols channel the magic of 1985 and bring Georgia’s historic 27-game winning streak to a close?

So what Happens?: I can certainly plot a path to victory on Saturday. It seems a lot more difficult after last weekend, but a path is there. The reality is it doesn’t get much lower than getting dunked on by Eli Drinkwitz during the post-game handshake. The Vols are playing at home though, and Tennessee is a different team at home. It is no coincidence that Tennessee has won 14 straight home games, but is 1-3 on the road this year. If you are looking for glimmers of hope then it is worth noting how little Georgia has played on the road this season. We obviously can’t count the Vanderbilt game, so the Bulldogs’ only real road game this season has been at Auburn. If Tennessee can start hot, then the crowd inside Neyland Stadium can be a factor in this game. Georgia still boasts a very solid run defense, but it is allowing over 100 yards per game and over 3.0 yards per carry for the first time since 2018. If Tennessee can stay balanced offensively, don’t be surprised to see the Vols jump out in front in this one. How would Georgia handle playing from behind on the road? Can the Vols’ stellar special teams play help in the upset bid? I am going to stop there though, because I am veering into the realm of fan fiction. Again, Tennessee can win this game on Saturday. However, for every reason to find optimism for the Vols, I can counter with multiple reasons that Georgia will simply be too much for Tennessee. I can see Tennessee having moments of success with its ground game, but I don’t expect it to be sustained. Georgia has the speed and talent on defense to stifle Tennessee on the perimeter. The Bulldogs’ front seven may have taken a step back this season, but its secondary remains elite. That is not good news for a banged-up receiver corps who have struggled to create separation this season. All of those factors will make it very difficult for Tennessee to move the football. Joe Milton is who he is at this point. The reality is you don’t pull off an upset like this without dynamic playmaking from your quarterback. Look at Tony Robinson in 1985. Milton has nearly 20 starts across six seasons of college football. The overall results have been mixed. However, he’s never truly taken a game over for four quarters. I think that is what would have to happen on Saturday for Tennessee to win, and it is tough to imagine. The best case would be Milton replicating his first-half play in Tuscaloosa but over four quarters. I would bet Tennessee has to hit that magic number “30” to win this game. As much as we want to focus on Kirby Smart’s defense, Georgia is scoring nearly 38 points per game in conference play. The Dawgs have their best receiving corps in years, and run the ball very well with Edwards and Milton. This Tennessee defense feels like it is running low on both confidence and healthy bodies. I struggle seeing Tennessee’s back seven on defense rising to the level needed on Saturday. I have been wrong plenty of times, including last week, but I don’t see the Vols making this a four quarter game. I can see a late touchdown threatening the spread, but the game itself will feel out of reach by the end of the third quarter. The Vols will be ready to turn the page to 2024 after this one. Georgia 34, Tennessee 17

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