SEC East rivals collide on Rocky Top this Saturday, as the top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs put their perfect season on the line against the upset-minded Tennessee Volunteers.
Georgia continues to flex its muscles with one dominant performance after another. The Bulldogs certainly made easy work of their latest victim, blowing out Missouri by a score of 43-6 last Saturday in Athens. They have now outscored their opponents 346-59 en route to a perfect 9-0 record, and the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. Georgia has already locked down a spot in the SEC Championship Game for the fourth time in the last five years by virtue of its 7-0 record in conference play. Kirby Smart’s Dawgs have their sights set on going 8-0 in the SEC for the first time in school history. Standing in the way is a dangerous Tennessee squad looking to play the role of spoiler.
Tennessee continues to move in a positive direction under first-year head coach Josh Heupel. The Vols survived a thriller last Saturday night in Lexington, dealing then-No. 18 Kentucky its first home loss of the season. Despite the Wildcats dominating the time of possession, Tennessee was able to capitalize on its quick-strike offense, and a last-minute defensive stop on fourth down to hang on for the 45-42 victory. Hendon Hooker threw for a career-high 316 yards and four touchdowns to earn SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Meanwhile, offensive tackle Cade Mays led the way in the trenches to earn SEC Lineman of the Week accolades for the second time this season. Now 5-4 overall and 3-3 in SEC play, the Volunteers return to Knoxville on Saturday to face their fourth top 20 opponent in a row in the form of the No. 1 team in the nation.
Georgia holds a narrow 25-23-2 edge in the all-time series against Tennessee. The Bulldogs have won each of the last four meetings, including a 44-21 victory over the Vols last season in Athens.
No. 1 Georgia at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 13 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -20.5
When Georgia Has the Ball
While Georgia's defense garners most of the headlines, an offense that averages an SEC-best 6.89 yards per play has been instrumental in the Bulldogs' success this season. Despite also being underappreciated at times, quarterback Stetson Bennett has been a big reason for that success. Bennett has completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,412 yards with 14 touchdowns and four interceptions. His 197.3 passer rating and 11.8 yards per pass attempt are the best in the conference. The Bulldogs are also fortunate to have JT Daniels back from injury. The preseason Heisman hopeful returned to action last week in the second half against Missouri, making his first appearance since week 4. Daniels could see the field again on Saturday against the Vols. However, there is little doubt that Smart will continue to ride the hot hand of Bennett in the starting role.
Bennett will lean on a receiving corps that continues to get healthier by the week. Freshman tight end Brock Bowers leads all Georgia pass catchers with 28 receptions for 493 yards and six touchdowns, followed by wide receivers Ladd McConkey (21 rec., 338 yds., 3 TDs), Jermaine Burton (16, 300, 3), and Adonai Mitchell (17, 248, 2). The offensive line has done its part, giving up an SEC-low five sacks to this point. Meanwhile, running backs Zamir White (106 att., 519 yds., 9 TDs) and James Cook (66, 383, 4) combine to form a solid one-two punch in the backfield for a Georgia ground game that is averaging a respectable 190.2 yards per game on the ground (ranked 6th in the SEC and 40th nationally).
The Georgia offense will be paired against a Tennessee defense that is surrendering 418 yards and 28.2 points per game. The Vols haven't been bad on a per play basis, giving up 5.25 yards per snap, which ranks fifth in the conference and 43rd nationally. They also rank second in the nation in tackles for a loss per game (8.1). And they do have their fair share of playmakers on that side of the football, led by linebacker Jeremy Banks, who leads the team in tackles (74), TFLs (9), and sacks (4.5). The problem is that Tennessee's defense can’t seem to get off the field, leading the SEC in defensive snaps by a wide margin. The Volunteers' quick-strike offense doesn’t help in that regard. And Tennessee's lack of depth defensively often catches up to them — a big reason why the Vols rank dead last in the SEC in both third down and red zone defense. Tennessee also has struggled mightily at times to contain running quarterbacks, which bodes well for Stetson Bennett (7.1 yards per carry). Tennessee's defense is resilient, but the Vols will definitely have their work cut out for them trying to slow down an undervalued Georgia offense for four quarters on Saturday.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Hooker is the engine that drives a high-octane Tennessee offense that averages 457.7 yards and 38.2 points per game. In nine games (7 starts), Hooker has been nothing short of phenomenal, completing 69.4 percent of his pass attempts for 1,894 yards with 21 touchdowns versus just two interceptions. He also ranks fourth nationally in both passer rating (190) and yards per pass attempt (10.2). And he is the first quarterback in program history to throw for more than 200 yards in six consecutive games. Hooker is pretty good with his legs as well, currently checking in as the Vols' second-leading rusher (457 yds., 4 TDs). Most of Hooker’s attention has been focused on a pair of veteran wide receivers in Velus Jones Jr. (36 rec., 553 yds., 5 TDs) and Cedric Tillman (36, 525, 5). That said, JaVonta Payton has been the big-play guy, averaging 26.1 yards per catch and scoring a touchdown in six of his last seven contests. Running back Tiyon Evans (81 att., 525 yds., 6 TDs) leads a rushing attack that ranks 19th nationally, averaging 217.11 yards per contest. However, a lingering ankle injury has limited Evans to just eight carries over the last three games, and his availability for Saturday is still in question. The same goes for backup running back Jabari Small (76 att., 387 yds., 4 TDs), who continues to battle a shoulder injury. If Evans and/or Small are limited, freshman running back Jaylen Wright (35, 146, 2) will likely do most of the heavy lifting for the Tennessee run game.
The Tennessee offense will be matched up against an elite Georgia defense that has no glaring weaknesses, giving up just 230.2 yards and 6.6 points per game. The Bulldogs rank first in the SEC in just about every defensive statistical category that matters. They have allowed only five touchdowns in nine games, and no team has scored more than 13 points against them in a game all season — Yikes! The Dawgs' biggest advantage on Saturday will likely come in the trenches, where behemoth defensive tackle Jordan Davis anchors a top-flight defensive front that is frightening, to say the least. In addition to trying to create running room against a stifling Georgia run defense, a Tennessee offensive line that has allowed an SEC-high 33 sacks will be tasked with trying to fend off a standout Georgia pass rush that has generated 28 sacks. The Vols do have the tools to create some problems for the Georgia defense, most notably with their tempo. But it probably goes without saying that this will be the most difficult challenge that the Tennessee offense will face all season.
Tennessee's offense should fare better than most against Georgia's elite defense. And the Vols will likely be the first opponent to crack the 13-point barrier against the Bulldogs. That said, this is a deep Georgia defense that lacks for nothing, which means that you can probably expect to see more three-and-outs from the Tennessee offense than touchdowns on Saturday. Meanwhile, an underrated Georgia offense will methodically exploit a thin Tennessee defense that struggles to get off the field on third down. Neyland Stadium should be electric but Tennessee will need far more than that to hang with the undisputed best team in the country.
Prediction: Georgia 41, Tennessee 20
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.