As odd as it may sound, in a season that Georgia football has already faced No. 3 ranked Clemson along with two other teams ranked inside the top 11 at the time of playing them, the 5-4 Tennessee Volunteers could prove to be the Dawgs’ most challenging test yet.
The Vols are better than what the record shows, and while they haven’t been able to string together many wins at this point, the team’s growth has been evident as the season has progressed.
One of Tennessee’s big losses this season was at the hands of Florida in September. Not much was truly known about either team at this point in the year, as Florida was still riding the high of a narrow two-point loss to Alabama while Tennessee was still figuring things out under a new head coach.
The Vols were competitive and kept it close in the first half, but the Gators’ superior talent and depth took over after halftime as they cruised to a 24-point win.
Since that game, both teams have been on completely opposite trajectories. Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel has his team of just over 70 scholarship players competing every play, and it is clear that they have bought into the system.
Meanwhile, Florida head coach Dan Mullen has seemed to completely lose the locker room as the Gators have dropped four of the last five games since the Tennessee victory.
That Florida team was already reeling leading up to its meeting with Georgia in Jacksonville, evidenced by the Gators’ complete meltdown just before halftime and minimal fight beyond that point.
However, this likely will not be the case for Tennessee as the Vols are playing with confidence and have begun to find some success offensively.
Tennessee ranks No. 4 in the SEC in offensive yards per game and No.3 in total points per game. Hendon Hooker has found his footing at quarterback for the Vols, accounting for 1,894 yards through the air while completing 69.4% of his passes on his way to an impressive 21-to-2 touchdown to interception ratio.
It’s also important to factor in his legs, as he’s rushed for 457 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
The extra element of offense provided by Hooker’s running ability has opened the door for Tennessee’s running backs to find success of their own, with two backs averaging more than five yards per carry with over 70 rushing attempts.
Though the numbers have not led to an influx of wins, the Vols have played tough, competitive games against some heavy-hitters from the SEC West.
They suffered a narrow loss at home to Ole Miss in a game that has now become infamous for the disgruntled fans throwing trash onto the field. One week later, Tennessee had Alabama fans on the verge of tears for three solid quarters before letting the game get out of hand in the fourth.
None of this is to say that Tennessee will pull off an upset, though.
The Vols are ultimately still undermanned, and Georgia is more than capable of covering the 20-point spread. Still, Neyland Stadium will be rowdy, and Heupel will have his team ready to compete as they’ve done all season.
Tennessee’s offensive proficiency lies in the run game, which Georgia has proven to be well equipped to defend. The loss of Adam Anderson will be noticeable, but Kirby Smart recruits and develops depth for a reason.
On the other side of the ball, Tennessee sits near the bottom of the conference in total defense.
Whichever quarterback it is from Georgia’s rotation that will face the Vols could have a field day against the SEC’s second-to-last ranked passing defense, but as is always the case, minimizing mistakes and turnovers will be the key to keeping the pressure on Tennessee.
This game could tell fans a lot about what this Georgia team is made of. The Dawgs have passed all the challenges to this point, but the only real road test so far was against Auburn.
Facing a well-coached Tennessee team with nothing to lose in a hostile environment could be a great barometer to see where Georgia is mentally, as well as how the team responds if faced with adversity.
As Kirby Smart says, you’re elite, or you’re not. Potential “trap games” like this are opportunities for elite teams to make a statement and silence doubters. Let’s hope nobody gets hit with a golf ball in the process.