Tennessee is coming off of its biggest win in recent history, while Georgia was embarrassed at No. 16 Ole Miss. Will the Vols ride the success from Saturday, or will they become complacent and suffer from a hangover game? Will Georgia regroup and come out fiery, or will the potential loss of Nick Chubb lead to another dead performance?
Saturday’ rivalry game between No. 11 Tennessee and No. 25 Georgia marks the 46th meeting between these two SEC East foes, with Tennessee holding a 22-21-2 advantage. The Vols won last year’s meeting in Neyland Stadium 38-31. After falling behind 24-3 in the first half, Tennessee pulled off a come-from-behind victory that marked the first defining win of Butch Jones’ tenure on Rocky Top.
In a critical matchup, with the winner holding a key advantage in the race to win the SEC East, Tennessee will begin October on the road in Athens, Georgia, where they are 2-6 since the turn of the century. Tennessee comes in 4-0 (1-0 SEC) after beating then-ranked No. 19 Florida in one of the early statement wins in the college football season. In ending a streak of 11 straight losses to their bitter rival, the Vols’ performance in the second half finally showed why many believe them to be a top 10 team.
On the other hand, Georgia suffered a pretty significant setback last Saturday. With the 45-14 loss to Ole Miss, the Bulldogs fell to 3-1 (1-1 SEC) on the season. Not only did the loss come at an embarrassing deficit, but an ankle injury to star tailback Nick Chubb provides little optimism for his availability in this upcoming showdown, as he has yet to practice this week. While Chubb’s absence would be critical, Georgia has a viable option to replace him in Sony Michel, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2015.
While freshman quarterback Jacob Eason showed promise in his first three starts, his performance Saturday against a legitimate SEC pass rush pumped the brakes on his hype for the time being. He finished the day 16-for-36 for 137 yards and one interception. With an upcoming matchup against another elite pass rush, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney will look to make adjustments with hopes to ease the pressure off of Eason.
With the combination of Chubb’s injury and heavily relying on a freshman quarterback, this isn’t the ideal situation first-year head coach Kirby Smart envisioned for his debut in this rivalry. Smart is well known for his work as defensive coordinator at Alabama, but took the job at his alma mater over the offseason, marking his first stint as a head coach. Expectations are high for the defensive guru as he replaces Mark Richt, who spent the previous 14 seasons as the head coach of the Bulldogs. Richt was fired after double-digit wins in four of the previous five seasons, proving again that Georgia expects a lot out of its new head football coach.
Regarded as one of the elite defensive minds in the NCAA, the numbers through four games prove there’s still plenty of work to be done with Smart’s new defensive unit. Although it was a small sample size, Chad Kelly enjoyed plenty of success last Saturday against a defense allowing 32 points per game. Now, Smart has a week to prepare for a Tennessee offense that nearly gained 500 yards of offense against what many consider an elite Florida defense.
Tennessee’s 38-28 win over Florida displayed how the Vols are capable of winning in several different ways. After falling behind 21-0, the Vols responded with 38 straight points. In the second half, a passing attack that was nearly nonexistent through the first three weeks was responsible for touchdown plays of 20, 67 and 42. Credit that to an improved offensive line. The unit allowed only one sack and one quarterback hurry to a Florida defense that entered the game leading the country in a handful of defensive statistics.
Not only were improvements from the offense a key factor, but the relentless attack of the Tennessee defense paved the way as well. Even with injuries to starters Cam Sutton and Darrin Kirkland Jr., the defense responded to a shaky start by holding the Gators to -9 total yards in their first six possessions of the second half. Star defensive end Derek Barnett was a force to be reckoned with, finishing with three tackles for loss and two sacks. Facing a Georgia offense struggling to find an identity with its star player banged up, Tennessee’s odds to continue this success appear to be high.
Based on week four performances, these two teams appear to be going in opposite directions. If Tennessee continues to ride the momentum from Saturday and Georgia continues to struggle, the Vols will come into Athens ready to deliver another statement and take full control of the race in the SEC East.
Tennessee 34, Georgia 23
The Vols and Bulldogs will clash on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Andrew Bruckse, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics