There was a time — last year, to be specific, and for about the past 20 or so years before that — when all Tennessee had to do was beat Alabama to have a successful season. One-and-10 on the year was an acceptable result, as long as that one came with victory cigars.
This is 2022, though, where a victory over Alabama isn’t the mountaintop, just a step along the way. It’s entirely possible that October’s dramatic, cathartic, goalpost-seizing victory will be only the fifth-most-important victory of the year for Tennessee … with the next step up the hill coming up this weekend in Athens.
In the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee, Tennessee is at last ranked where Vol fans believe they should be all along – No. 1 — and that gives the Volunteers an extra boost of nitrous oxide. (Or rat poison, if you’re of a Nick Saban mindset.) Either way, Tennessee rolls into Athens with more momentum — and more on the line — than it’s had in forever.
At stake: the lead in the SEC East, a near-certain berth in the SEC championship, and a likely berth in the College Football Playoff. This is the first time that Tennessee has been ranked No. 1 in any poll since 1998 — a season that, not coincidentally, ended with the Vols hoisting their most recent national championship. It has been a long, dry, desolate road of disappointment, frustration and McDonald’s bags filled with illicit recruiting dollars since then, but at last the Vols are back in the national conversation for all the right reasons.
“Because of our work habits — not just during training camp or during the season — but the work habits since we get back last January, there is an expectation within our locker room,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said. “You pair that with good leadership inside of the locker room, staff and players that are connected, that compete hard every single day, you put yourself in a position to go play good football and try to fight and find a way to be on the plus side of the scoreboard when you walk off the field.”
Vols are underdogs for a reason
Before Tennessee and its fans get too caught up in what-ifs, though, it’s worth remembering that they’re marching into the college football equivalent of Mordor, an unforgiving land where the hedges are fertilized by scraps of teams with big dreams. The Dawgs, an 8-point favorite on Saturday by BetMGM oddsmakers, are riding a five-game winning streak over Tennessee where the average margin of victory is more than 28 points. Georgia hasn’t lost at home in more than three years, since a chaotic defeat to South Carolina in 2019. Earlier this season, the Dawgs picked apart Oregon — ranked No. 8 in the CFP — like leftover turkey three days after Thanksgiving.
“Great environments, that's why you come coach and play in this league,” Heupel said. “You want to be in big-time games, and there's something unique about being on the road and facing that type of environment too. It's fun and exciting.” He noted that Tennessee is practicing with crowd noise this week to prepare, as much as possible, for the hostile confines of Sanford Stadium.
“I know our fan base will be loud and proud. I want to challenge our fan base,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “Everybody talks about the Notre Dame game (in 2019, when Georgia overcame a halftime deficit and a late Irish charge to win in Athens), but we want to be louder than that.”
Where to look for an edge?
This game will be strength on strength, across the board. Tennessee has the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense racking up 49.4 points per game. Georgia has the No. 2 scoring defense, allowing 10.5 points per game. Hendon Hooker is now the justifiable Heisman favorite, but Georgia’s defense has smothered every quarterback it’s faced this year.
“They have some traditional formations and traditional plays. But a lot of theirs is very different. It's very unique and they have a plan of attack based on how you're going to play them,” Smart said of Tennessee’s offense. “You're not going to trick them. You're not going to show them something they haven't seen. You got to do what you do better than they do. And they're really good at what they do.”
On the other side of the ball, you can dunk on Stetson Bennett all you want, he’ll just sling the ball to Brock Bowers for a long touchdown before you even touch him. Georgia averages 41.8 points per game, good for sixth in the nation. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s swarming defense leads the SEC in interceptions (9) and takeaways (16), and ranks second in tackles for a loss per game.
“This is the top brand of football,” Hooker said Monday. “It's one of the reasons that we came to the schools that we chose. That's what we want to be in, being top competitors in the game of football.”
Georgia preparing for intense fitness test
Georgia’s one glaring weakness is its schedule, filled with cupcakes and SEC East pretenders, but last weekend the Dawgs annihilated a Florida team that Tennessee handled without dominating in September. Smart conceded as much when he noted how Georgia will face a conditioning challenge unlike any other it’s seen this year.
“Unfortunately, we haven't had a lot of games where we've played a lot of snaps,” he said. “So that goes back to, if you're not playing them in the game, you better get it done during the week. And, you know, we've worked hard at it. We're going to find out on Saturday if we're in shape or not. I can promise you that, because they're going to try and get a lot of snaps in.”
This game, in the words of esteemed Georgia fans Migos, is big on big. (RIP, Takeoff.) Something’s got to give. Starting at 3:30 ET on Saturday afternoon, the balance of power in the SEC will either be affirmed or overturned. Either way, it should be one hell of a game.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.