One of the SEC’s most hotly-contested rivalries heats up again on Saturday when the No. 7-ranked Georgia Bulldogs visit Knoxville to face the Tennessee Volunteers. Each of the last six games between these teams has been decided by eight points or less, with three of the last four decided by just three points. Tennessee leads the all-time series 23-21-2 thanks to wins over Georgia in each of the past two seasons.
But the Volunteers have their work cut out for them on Saturday if they want to make it three in a row against their longtime division rivals. The last time Tennessee beat a top-10 conference opponent in Knoxville was 1999. And despite a 3-1 record, Butch Jones’ team isn’t exactly trending in the same direction as the Bulldogs at the moment. A head-scratching loss to Florida, followed by a lackluster performance in last week’s 17-13 win over UMass has Jones’ seat getting warmer by the minute. Fortunately, Tennessee always seems to show up for this game regardless of circumstance. That will need to be the case again if the Vols have any chance of scoring the upset and getting their season back on track.
Conversely, things couldn’t be going any better for Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs right now. After securing a big win on the road at Notre Dame and throttling a very good Mississippi State team last week at home, Georgia now sits at 4-0 and could really put itself in the driver’s seat in the East with a win in Knoxville. The question is, can the Bulldogs keep things rolling against a Tennessee team that has gotten the best of them in each of the previous two meetings? One thing is for sure, they haven’t forgotten about last season’s heart-wrenching “Hail Mary” loss in Athens.
Georgia at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 30 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Georgia -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jake Fromm
Fromm (above, right) hasn’t put up astronomical numbers so far in his freshman campaign, but he has been incredibly efficient. He has completed 62 percent of his passes with a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His ability to conjure up the occasional big play has been noteworthy as well. Fromm’s top three targets are each averaging more than 20 yards per catch, led by wide receiver Terry Godwin’s 26.8 to go along with his four touchdown receptions.
Fromm will face a Tennessee defense that has been solid against the pass. The Vols currently rank 11th nationally in that regard, allowing just 140.5 passing yards per game. However, this defense has yet to face a legitimate passing attack in any of its first four contests. Fromm and company should provide that first real test.
And while most true freshman quarterbacks are shaking in their cleats at the thought of playing in a hostile environment like Neyland Stadium for the first time, Fromm isn’t your typical true freshman. He wasn’t shaken by the big stage at the Little League World Series as a 12-year-old, and he wasn’t fazed by a pressure-filled road test at Notre Dame. So, chances are, Fromm isn’t going to buckle in front of 102,455 rabid fans on Saturday either.
2. Tennessee offense vs. Georgia defense
The Tennessee offense will need an almost flawless performance on Saturday, a tall order for an attack that has been very inconsistent and mistake-prone to this point. It’s an even taller order against an elite Georgia defense that has allowed just 269 yards and 11.5 points per game on average. The Bulldog defense was even more impressive last week against Nick Fitzgerald and a red-hot Mississippi State offense. Georgia held the Bulldogs from the SEC West to just three points and Fitzgerald to 83 passing yards.
The good news is that the Vols’ offense hasn’t been completely inept. It has shown flashes, especially when the chips have been down. It also doesn’t hurt having SEC rushing leader John Kelly in the fold. Kelly is averaging a healthy 5.6 yards per carry to go along with six rushing touchdowns. That said, Kelly can’t do it all on his own. Georgia is giving up just 98 yards on the ground per game, and the Bulldogs will likely stack the box to limit the Vols’ biggest offensive threat. That will require Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady to step up in a big way.
The Vols have the talent to challenge the Georgia defense, but success will only come from a complete effort, and a consistent level of execution that we have yet to see from the Tennessee offense so far in 2017. This has to be the week that the Volunteers put it all together on offense. If not, the outcome will not be good for Tennessee.
3. Georgia run game vs. Tennessee run defense
Tennessee has a special talent at running back in Kelly, but Georgia has three top-flight running backs in its stable. And this is a matchup that lines up quite favorably for Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift, who have collectively amassed 759 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground alone through four games. That could spell trouble for a Tennessee run defense that ranks near the bottom of FBS teams (No. 117) and has already allowed 969 rushing yards in its first four games.
To be fair, the Volunteers gave up a big chunk of that yardage to Georgia Tech, who currently has the nation’s top rushing attack. Regardless, Tennessee has not looked great against any of the backfields it has faced in 2017, and like last season, injuries have taken a big toll on this defense. The Vols’ defense will need its best effort of the season to slow down Georgia on the ground. Senior linebacker Colton Jumper, who had 11 tackles and forced a fumble against the Bulldogs last season, will be particularly critical to Tennessee’s success or lack thereof.
The Volunteers should show up ready and energized for this matchup. Tennessee might even have a chance if the Bulldogs come out overconfident and complacent as a result of their early-season success. After all, this game does have a history of taking some strange twists and turns, resulting in close contests that usually come down to the wire. However, it’s difficult to see that happening this time around.
Tennessee doesn’t match up particularly well against Georgia in any respect, and the revenge-fueled Bulldogs aren’t likely to come out flat after what happened in Athens last season. In fact, a pretty convincing argument could be made that this game will result in a blowout win for Georgia. The Volunteers should put forth enough effort to avoid that fate playing at home. But the Bulldogs still have enough firepower to come away with a fairly convincing victory in Knoxville on Saturday.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Tennessee 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.