No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Georgia Game Day Preview
The Vols prepare to play their biggest game of the season to date in a battle of the unbeaten against the Bulldogs that will likely determine who will represent the SEC East in the title game.
Coming off a dominating performance against Kentucky, No. 1 Tennessee (8-0, 4-0 SEC) earned the top spot in the first College Football Playoff rankings before its trip to Athens to take on No. 3 Georgia (8-0, 5-0 SEC).
Here is everything you need to know about the most anticipated college football matchup of the season:
Last Saturday against a ranked Kentucky team, the Vols dismantled the Wildcats in each phase of the game during their 44-6 win.
On offense, Hendon Hooker continued his Heisman-caliber play with 245 passing yards and three touchdowns. His favorite receiver remained Jalin Hyatt as the breakout star reeled in five catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns. His 14 touchdown receptions on the season breaks the school record set by Marcus Nash in 1997.
Alongside Hyatt, Bru McCoy made his presence felt again with six catches for 54 yards. Cedric Tillman also returned after missing a majority of the season with an injury with four catches for 22 yards.
Out of the backfield, Jabari Small had another impressive day. He rushed for 78 yards on 21 carries along with grabbing two catches for 17 yards and a touchdown. Jaylen Wright also made impacted the game with seven carries for 73 yards and a score. Tight end Princeton Fant also punched it in again on a handoff from two yards out.
The offensive line also remained sturdy as they only allowed two sacks and three tackles for loss.
The most impressive aspect of Tennessee’s win was the offense, though. They held Kentucky to just 98 passing yards and 107 rushing yards. Will Levis struggled to move the ball through the air throwing three interceptions to Juwan Mitchell, Doneiko Slaughter and Brandon Turnage.
Along with his interception, Mitchell led the team in tackles with eight. Byron Young also stood out with 1.5 sacks.
Tennessee even dominated on special teams, as well. Paxton Brooks had his name called three times on punts where he pinned Kentucky inside the five-yard line twice and boomed the third for over 50 yards.
Dee Williams also made his impact felt on punt returns taking a pair for an average of 22 yards.
Overall, Tennessee looked all of its new No. 1 ranking in the win. Kentucky looked helpless in all three phases as the Vols easily ran away with the game.
Last year, the Bulldogs ended a four-decade title drought with their first National Championship since 1980.
This season, they have reloaded and look to be another serious contender.
Stetson Bennett returns at quarterback where he has impressed with 2,349 yards along with nine touchdowns and three interceptions through the air.
With George Pickens departing for the NFL, Bennett has turned to his pair of elite tight ends for production. Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington have combined for 879 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Ladd McConkey has also been productive with 413 yards and two scores.
Out of the backfield, Daijun Edwards and Kenny McIntosh split the reps. They combine for 772 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns on the year. McIntosh is also a threat in the passing game, though, with 265 yards and one score.
However, Georgia’s strength is its stifling defense. The Bulldogs currently rank first in the SEC in the fewest yards and points allowed per game this season.
After a historic amount of players were drafted from last year’s defense, players have stepped up for Georgia. Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Malaki Starks, Smael Mondon Jr. and Christopher Smith have headlined the defense. Nolan Smith has also gotten off to a hot start but has been ruled out for the remainder of the year with an injury.
Overall, the Bulldogs look like they could repeat as champions. The offense is a step behind the defense, but the elite defensive production is undeniable. However, they haven’t looked perfect this year with close games against Kent State and Missouri.
Vols vs. Bulldogs History
Tennessee and Georgia have a rich football history dating back to 1899. The Bulldogs currently lead the all-time series 26-23-2.
Georgia is also currently on a five-game winning streak after the Vols won consecutive games in 2015 and 2016 with the latter coming in a spectacular hail-mary finish.
Last year, Georgia came into Neyland Stadium and took care of business en route to an undefeated regular season. In the 41-17 loss, Hooker still had a solid game with 244 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception. Bennett also threw for 213 yards and a score.
Tennessee led the game 10-7 heading into the second quarter but ran out of gas following the break. The lack of depth on both sides of the ball led to the Bulldogs easily galloping to victory.
5 Keys to the Game
In a hostile road environment, it is even more important to get on the board early. Just like in the Vols’ trip to Baton Rouge, Tennessee needs to apply pressure out the gate to take the fans out of the game and build an early lead. This was also the recipe for success against Alabama. If the offense can get rolling early and the defense can create some stops, then Tennessee’s chance of winning will improve drastically.
Win the turnover battle
Hooker has been phenomenal at taking care of the ball this season with just one interception. This level of play will need to continue as Tennessee can’t give Georgia free possessions. On the other side, the Vols must also force Bennett into mistakes. If they can force interceptions to bail them out of drives as they did against Kentucky while staying clean on offense, Tennessee will find itself on the right side of the score.
Tennessee will be walking into Sanford Stadium where it will meet a packed stadium that is hungry to make an impact. It will be loud and rowdy but the Vols can’t let that affect their game. The offensive line needs to stay disciplined and not forfeit penalties that put the offense behind the chains and lead to three-and-outs. On defense, they can’t get caught with pass interferences or other big penalties that give Georgia free first downs.
Stop the run and force Bennett to pass
Bennett hasn’t been bad by any means this season, but he also hasn’t been great. A key for Tennessee to win will be making him make plays. If the Vols can stop the run game and force Georgia to air it out, then Tennessee may be able to take advantage of poor passes and create turnovers and stops. This all starts with a stifling run defense that has been on display for the Vols all year, though.
Make it a shootout
It is no secret that Tennessee’s strength is its offense. This needs to be exploited by putting up 35+ points on Georgia’s defense. If the Vols can run up the score and force the Bulldogs to match the production, there is a good chance Georgia’s offense will falter and not meet the point total needed to win. This is much easier said than done, though, as the Bulldogs have possibly the top defense in the country.
When the schedule comes out, Tennessee fans immediately circle three games. Florida, Alabama and Georgia. So far this season, the Vols have knocked off two of those big rivals, leaving just the Bulldogs.
Not only does this game mean more due to the history, but it also is likely for a trip to the SEC Championship game and the College Football Playoff.
Even with this added pressure, I think Tennessee will meet expectations. The Vols have shown that the past hasn’t mattered and that a new era has arrived in Knoxville. Josh Heupel has the team focused and hungry and leaders such as Hooker keep the team calm and collected in big moments.
I think Hooker will continue his extraordinary play and cement himself as the Heisman winner. A “Heisman moment” is likely in store as he will throw for over 300 yards and find the endzone at least three times. Hyatt will also continue his unprecedented season with over 100 yards and multiple touchdowns. Tillman will also show the country that he is still an elite receiver with over 100 yards and a touchdown, as well.
Defensively, Tennessee will struggle to stop Bennett and the Bulldogs’ offense but will make enough stops to make a difference. Similar to the Alabama game, the defense will bend but not break at the beginning and end but will let up points in the middle.
Overall, it is likely going to be an instant classic between the hedges on Saturday afternoon. With the world watching and an enormous amount riding on the game, I have the Vols winning in a shootout.
Tennessee – 42
Georgia – 40
Game Time and Coverage
The matchup will take place in Athens, Ga. at 3:30 EST. It will air on CBS and ESPN’s College GameDay will be in attendance. This is the third time this season GameDay has covered the Vols with the crew traveling to Knoxville for the affairs against Florida and Alabama. TNJN will have more coverage following the game.
Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a senior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org