A Clash of Titans
The #1 ranked Tennessee Volunteers come to Athens, GA on Saturday to face off agains the #3 ranked Georgia Bulldogs. College Gameday will almost certainly be on Myers’s Quad, with Pat McAfee, Reece Davis, Herbstreit and the whole crew. Folks, this is the biggest game of the year so far for college football with a loss potentially eliminating one of the best teams in the sport out of the playoffs. We live for these match ups. Let’s get into it.
When Tennessee hired UCF coach Josh Heupel two years ago, hardly anyone thought it was a great hire. On the surface, it seemed like a desperation move. The AD from UCF hired his former coach because seemingly no one else would take the job. Tennessee had been down on its luck ever since Phil Fulmer was fired from the program. Those were some dark days under coaches like Butch Jones and Derek Dooley. I still remember sitting in the Tennessee section at Neyland stadium in 2017 as the Dawgs embarrassed the Vols 41-0. By the second half, some of the fans around me were begging Georgia to keep scoring in hopes that Jones would get fired. They got their wish. And after a rocky stint under Jeremy Pruitt, the Vols seems to have found their guy in Heupel.
Heupel’s Vols still lost several games last year, but in the second year in his system with many of the same players they are flourishing. He led UCF to a 28-8 record as a head coach. Previously, he worked as an offensive coordinator for Oklahoma, Utah State, and then Missouri. He is familiar with working with quarterbacks as a QB coach in these roles and seems to have found a great match for his playing style in Heisman hopeful Hendon Hooker. Once he found his way to Knoxville, Heupel immediately improved upon Tennesee’s team. He led them to a 7-6 record in year one, and now in year two he sits as the coach of the #1 ranked team in college football. On top of that, he has the #2 quarterback in the country committed for the ‘23 season in Nico Iamalevea.
You already know about this team’s offense. They move fast and hit explosive plays. No team in the nation is as effective at running an up-temp offense as the Vols. They are led by veteran QB Hendon Hooker who is accurate and athletic. He thrives in Heupel’s system, throwing darts all over the field, running when necessary, and almost never turning the ball over. At 24, Hooker is older than a handful of starting NFL quarterbacks. He may join them next year.
Hooker has two targets who are lightning quick: Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hiatt. Tillman was the more notable of the two going into the season. An injury took him out for several games, which has allowed Hiatt to flourish. Hiatt burst onto the CFB scene with a 5 touchdown performance against Alabama. Last year, Tillman was their deep threat, and he carved up Georgia for 200 yards. Now the Vols have that deadly one-two punch in their lineup.
Despite their passing game that makes the headlines, their explosive passes are opened up by their commitment to the run. Tennessee runs the ball around 56% of downs. So you can’t neglect stacking the box, because they first look to pound opponents with the running game before they air it out. The offensive line has taken a big step forward from last season in its ability to protect Hooker and to push players off the line of scrimmage.
What has made Heupel’s offense work so well is that he has matched scheme and personnel. They move fast so defense can’t think, but do small things to create space and expose defenders. Their offensive line splits are closer than normal. Their receivers line up wider than normal. Both create space, and make defenses choose if they want to spread out and cover receivers well, or stack the box and stop the run. The Vols let you pick your poison, move fast, and go into pre-snap motion to give Hooker vital information on what the defense is doing. The end result is that they put up tons of points quickly or they tend to have short drives.
Tennessee’s defense is less predictable. Statistically, they have one of the top run defenses in the nation while simultaneously having one of the worst passing defenses. One of the keys to the game will be if the Vols can stop UGA’s running attack. Does UT have a great front 7 that stops the run or do teams not run the ball as much on them because they’re playing from behind? While I haven’t watched this defense on film a lot, the team dynamic reminds me of Chip Kelly’s Oregon teams. Explosive, fast-paced offenses that win a lot of games. However, sometimes the offense scores so fast that the defense gets worn thin and gives up just as many or more points.
Kirby Smart has to love the fact that the Vols are ranked higher, that they are the media’s darling right now, and that the vast majority of the money is being bet on Tennessee. Georgia hasn’t been full strength all year, and comes into this game the most banged up they have been all season. Losing OLB Nolan Smith for the season is a huge blow, as the drop off in talent and leadership behind him is significant. Jalen Carter will need to be 100%, and I’m not convinced he is. I could run through all the known injuries on the team, but it might take a half page to cover it all. Georgia is coming off of a strong performance against a rival. They’re motivated, but will be severely affected by the number of injuries. However, Sanford should be rocking and Tennessee has not played in an environment close to how rowdy it will be in Athens on Saturday.
This is one of the most intriguing match ups in college football this season. Georgia is methodical, Tennessee is explosive. Georgia has been a pass-first team known for their running game, while Tennessee is a run-first team known for their passing. Georgia suffocates you as the game goes on, Tennessee starts fast and knows you won’t catch up even if you get close. There are so many fascinating factors to this game.
Kirby Smart is almost winless when giving up 30+ points. Josh Heupel is almost winless when he doesn’t score 30+ points. So, can Georgia hold UT under 30? It seems unlikely. If so, they’ll almost certainly win. Historically, they’ll almost certainly lose if they can’t. Has Todd Monken elevated Georgia’s offense to the level where it can win in a shoot out?
Kirby’s Dawgs have never been able to successfully stop an offense with two dynamic receivers. 2019 LSU destroyed them. Alabama has had their routs over Georgia with the likes of Waddle, Juedy, Metchie, and more. Once each year since Kirby has taken over in Athens, Georgia has been blown out by an opponent. If anyone will do that to Georgia this year, Tennessee has the recipe to do so.
And yet, it also seems like if there is a team built to keep Hooker and Hiatt off the field with sustained drives, has the ability to score with the Vols, and may have a defense that can hang just enough with their offense to turn some touchdowns into field goals, it’s Georgia. This is the beauty of this game. Georgia plays like a team that can beat Tennessee. Tennessee can disrupt Georgia’s strength, and could blow them out of the water if they’re not careful. The one player who must bring their A game today is Stetson Bennett. If he turns the ball over or has an off-day, Georgia may get crushed. If he is dialed in, UGA can cruise.
There is so much unpredictability to this game, but we should anticipate a few things. UT starts fast and nearly always scores on their first possession. They did last year against UGA. So Dawg fans, if they score first, don’t panic. They have outscored their opponents 293-81 in the first quarter this year. To win, Georgia needs to start as quickly as the Vols or limit their scoring early. Georgia has a vulnerable secondary. Freshman safety Malaki Starks lacks experience and discipline despite his incredible talent. He may make a big play, but he also is nearly guaranteed to give up a few. So is CB Kelee Ringo. I spot the Volunteers 14 points from Ringo getting beat deep and Starks missing an assignment. Georgia will commit to the run game to increase their time of possession. If they can establish the run, Tennessee is in trouble. Look for Stetson Bennett to use his mobility more this game to add a variable to the rushing attack. Georgia needs every weapon it has to win this.
Georgia will take more risks defensively than Alabama did. Alabama believed that Will Anderson, Dallas Turner, and company could get to the QB, so they could drop 7 into coverage. Alabama blitzed like 3 times all game and it failed miserably. It was the same gameplay Georgia brought against Alabama in the SEC championship last year that didn’t work. Georgia doesn’t have an Anderson or a Turner on their team, so they’ll have to blitz from a variety of angles to disrupt Hooker. Look for double A gap blitzes regularly from Georgia to try and get him off rhythm.
Ultimately, I think Georgia is the better team, but Tennessee has an easier path to success. With all of their injuries, Georgia needs more to go right in this game to win than Tennessee does. Georgia is going to be playing some third stringers on defense due to injury. If the Vols get stopped on a drive, no big deal. They‘ll probably put up points on the next one. If UGA’s offense sputters for any stretch of this game, or they commit turnovers as they have been prone to do, they lose. So, I think Georgia’s margin for error is much worse than the Vol’s. Either team can pull this off, but I think the odds are in UT’s favor. I hope I’m wrong. Tennessee 41-Georgia 31.