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Tennessee vs. Georgia Prediction: Titanic SEC East Matchup to Take Place Between the Hedges

Undefeated Volunteers and Bulldogs face off in a game that will shape the SEC title race, College Football Playoff picture, Heisman Trophy race and so much more.

An epic college football showdown in the SEC with national title, playoff and Heisman implications is on tap this Saturday, as Tennessee travels to Athens to take on Georgia. Thanks to a win over Alabama earlier this year, the Volunteers ranked No. 1 in the first release of the CFB Playoff Top 25. However, the Bulldogs aren't far behind at No. 3. Four weeks of the season remain after this Saturday, but the winner of this game would take a big step forward in the race to win the SEC East and increase their odds of a trip to the CFB Playoff.

Repeating as the national champion is never easy, and with several key players off to the NFL, it's no surprise Georgia hasn't been as dominant as its '21 team. However, if the pieces fall into place and the Bulldogs show more overall week-to-week consistency, this team is capable of winning it all once again. Coach Kirby Smart's squad dominated Oregon (49-3) in the opener but had close calls against Kent State (39-22) and Missouri (26-22) before winning its next three games by at least 22 points. Has Georgia worked through its question marks and inconsistent play at times this year and is it ready to flip a switch to become a more dominant team in November?

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Although Georgia harbored preseason expectations of a national title, Tennessee being in this high-profile situation comes as a surprise. The Volunteers went 7-6 last year and had question marks along the offensive line and on defense entering fall practice. The rapid improvement of Tennessee is clearly due to the arrival of coach Josh Heupel, who is 15-6 in his second year at the helm. After a 7-6 debut, the Volunteers have made a significant jump in overall play and are arguably the biggest surprise in the nation. Behind a high-powered offense, Tennessee is 8-0 with quality wins over LSU (40-13) and Alabama (52-49). A loss here doesn't knock out Heupel's team from playoff contention, but the path to the top four would get more difficult.

Georgia holds a 26-23-1 series edge over Tennessee. The Bulldogs have won five in a row against the Volunteers, with each matchup decided by 23 points or more. Tennessee has won just one of its last six matchups in Athens.

No. 1 Tennessee at No. 3 Georgia

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 5 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS
Live Stream: fuboTV (Start your free trial)
Spread: Georgia -8
Tickets: As low as $546 on SITickets.com*

When Tennessee Has the Ball

Can Georgia find a way to do what no defense has done this year and slow down Tennessee's high-powered offense? Even though the Bulldogs have some of the nation's best talent on this side of the ball, it's a monumental task for Smart's defense to stop the Volunteers. No team has held Tennessee under 34 points, and this unit enters Saturday's game averaging 49.4 points a game and 7.4 a play. Also, the Volunteers are the best in the nation at producing plays of 40-plus yards (22) and have connected on six plays of 60-plus.

Instead of aiming for a complete shutdown, Georgia may have to focus on winning small battles as the best way to slow down Hendon Hooker and Co. Smart's defense ranks second in the SEC on third down and first in red zone stops. Both of those areas could be key on Saturday. The Bulldogs can afford to give up some ground between the 20s, but keeping the Volunteers out of the end zone (and kicking field goals instead) would be a win. Georgia enters Saturday's game ranked first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and limits teams to 4.56 yards a snap and 10.5 points a contest.

Secondary communication is also key for Smart's defense. Opposing defenses have been frequently out of position by Tennessee's tempo and receiving corps, which resulted in big plays from Hooker to receivers Jalin Hyatt or Cedric Tillman. Considering the firepower of Tennessee's offense, it's safe to assume this group will land a punch or two on Georgia's secondary. But the goal should be to limit those big plays and get Hooker off the field on third downs.

Hooker (2,338 yards and 21 passing scores) is the catalyst for this high-powered offense. The senior is the perfect conductor for this attack, as he limits mistakes (just one pick this year) and completes a high percentage of passes (71.2). Hyatt (45 catches for 907 yards) has emerged as Hooker's main target, especially after Tillman was sidelined for four games due to an ankle injury. But the Volunteers also have depth outside of these two, as Bru McCoy (30 rec.), Ramel Keyton (20), and Squirrel White (10) are lethal downfield.

Although Hooker, Tillman, and Hyatt are getting all of the attention (and rightfully so) for Tennessee's success this year, the ground game and offensive line are also a key part of the attack. After allowing 44 sacks last season, the front five has surrendered only 13 through eight matchups. Also, while the production of the ground game is similar to '21, the overall play is better, with Jaylen Wright (478 rushing yards) and Jabari Small (475) leading the way at running back.

Although coverage and preventing big plays are critical to Georgia's chances of a win, keep an eye on what happens in the trenches. Can the Bulldogs get a good push behind lineman Jalen Carter to stop the run and pressure Hooker with its front line? If Georgia has to devote extra players in the box, that's a good sign for Tennessee's offense as it looks to win one-on-one battles downfield.

When Georgia Has the Ball

It's possible Georgia's best defense on Saturday might also be a dose of its offense. Although a complete ground-and-pound effort is unlikely, the Bulldogs can alleviate some of the pressure on their defense by chewing up the clock behind a strong offensive line and ground game. The fewer times Hooker and Co. can touch the ball, the better Georgia's victory hopes.

Behind an offensive line that's arguably the best in the SEC, the Bulldogs average 5.7 yards per rushing attempt and should have an edge over Tennessee's improved defensive front. Daijun Edwards (440 yards), Kenny McIntosh (332), Kendall Milton (284), and Branson Robinson (234) could all see snaps on Saturday. SEC opponents are averaging only 104.3 rushing yards a game against the Volunteers, but this is arguably the toughest rushing attack and offensive line combo coordinator Tim Banks' group has faced.

Although the ground game should be featured to test Tennessee up front and also to keep Hooker on the sideline, Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett should still have plenty of opportunities on Saturday. The Volunteers have been vulnerable all year through the air, ranking eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. Bennett isn't hitting on many big plays, but the senior ranks second among SEC signal-callers with 293.6 passing yards a game with nine touchdowns while connecting on 67.8 percent of his attempts. He may not run for much yardage, but Bennett's ability to use his legs and slide around in the pocket could create opportunities when things break down in the pocket.

Injuries at receiver have been a problem and hindered Georgia's ability to test defenses downfield. Although passing plays of 40-plus yards might not happen on Saturday, the tight end pairing of Brock Bowers (31 catches for 547 yards) and Darnell Washington (19, 332) is a nightmare matchup for Tennessee's defense. Also, Bennett can check the ball down to McIntosh (15 rec.) and Milton as needed, while Ladd McConkey (33) and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (15) are the top statistical options on the outside. Bowers and Washington are clear problems for the Volunteers, but the defense has to find a way to slow them down and force the receivers to win on the outside.

Tennessee's defense isn't necessarily an elite shutdown group, but this unit has shown improvement in '22. After giving up 29.1 points a game in '21, the Volunteers are holding teams to 21 this fall. Also, this group is holding teams to 5.6 yards per play in SEC games — down from 5.8. The Volunteers pace the SEC in takeaways (16) and are tied for first in the SEC in fewest plays of 40-plus yards allowed (five). Can Banks' group continue to get timely stops or generate a few takeaways to get the ball back to Tennessee's high-powered offense?

Final Analysis

Expect points in a high-quality game between two of the nation's top teams. Tennessee's offense isn't likely to be completely contained by Georgia, which means it's all about timely stops in the red zone and on third down. Also, a couple of takeaways for one side would be a huge shift in what should be a close matchup. The Bulldogs need to get on track on the ground, with the offense hitting the 10-15-yard chunk plays through the air. And with Tennessee's issues defending the pass, Bennett to Bowers should be a popular connection. On the other side, the Volunteers need to keep doing what got them to No. 1: Tempo, pace, and scoring. Heupel's squad should aim to get Georgia uncomfortable by jumping ahead on the scoreboard. An eight-point spread seems to be too much for a Tennessee team that can score with anybody in college football right now. But with this one in Athens and Georgia's defense capable of getting a stop or two, an edge goes to the 'Dawgs.

Prediction: Georgia 41, Tennessee 38

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