Counterintelligence a factor in Georgia-Tennessee matchup

Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt was defensive coordinator at Georgia and was Kirby Smart’s assistant at Alabama. Jim Chaney was the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator the past three years, but is coordinating the Volunteers’ offense now.

It goes on from there.

While prognosticators aren’t expecting Georgia-Tennessee game to be very competitive, the crossover element of Saturday’s game in Knoxville (7 p.m., ESPN) ought to at least make it compelling.

Predictably, the respective coaches are downplaying the familiarity aspect of the contest. But the espionage and counterintelligence factor could play a role in this SEC Eastern Division matchup.

“I’m sure coach Chaney will probably try to mess with our defense a little, try to scheme a little,” Georgia senior linebacker Tae Crowder said.

“Our coaching staff used to be over there; theirs used to be over here,” Bulldogs center Trey Hill. “It should be pretty interesting.”

There almost always is some crossover in the incestuous SEC. Coaches often circulate from program to program through the years. Auburn assistant coach Rodney Garner has been at Tennessee and Georgia, and South Carolina coach Will Muschamp has been at Florida, Auburn and LSU, not to mention playing for the Bulldogs.

So there’s always some familiarity. There just happens to be more than usual between Georgia and Tennessee. And it’s fresh.

The Vols have an edge in UGA representation inside their football building. In addition to the just-arrived Chaney, offensive line coach Will Friend (2011-14), defensive line coach Tracy Rocker (2014-16), linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer (2014-17) and tight ends coach Brian Niedermeyer (grad assistant, 2015) all coached recently at Georgia.

Conversely, UGA defensive backs coach Charlton Warren (2017) and offensive line coach Sam Pittman (2012) had brief tenures on Rocky Top.

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There also is some player crossover. Tight end Eli Wolf came to Georgia as a graduate transfer after four seasons at Tennessee, while defensive back Deangelo Gibbs transferred to Tennessee after playing for the Bulldogs the previous two seasons.

There are, as they say, no secrets in this one.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm theorized that Chaney’s presence might help the Bulldogs’ defense more than it hurts their offense.

“They know a lot about what he does in his system, but he also knows a lot about us and what we do here,” Fromm said. “We kind of know a little bit about what they do, and they know a little bit about what we do. We’ve just got to do what we do a little better than what they do.”

Of course, divisional foes such as Georgia and Tennessee are always going to have extensive knowledge of each other. With today’s scouting technology and expansive support staffs, there is very little left to guesswork when it comes to strategies and tendencies.

Every play of every game is broken down by down and distance and digitally catalogued and distributed to players and coaches as both data and video. All Power 5 programs subscribe to companies that provide advanced statistical analysis and, after the first game or two, every team is going to be fully versed on the opponents’ personnel.

Meanwhile, most everybody is doing a lot of the same things on offense and defense anyway. Georgia remains a little more pro-style on offense and a 3-4 concept on defense, while Tennessee bends more toward the spread and the 4-3. But regardless of formation, both are executing and having to defend a bunch of run-pass option.

That said, stealing signals and verbal check calls at the line of scrimmage can still provide a decided edge on any given play. Those are likely to change throughout the game for both teams.

So from that standpoint, when the coaches say it will come down to execution and winning one-on-one battles, they're not kidding.

“At the end of the day it comes down to blocking, tackling, executing and taking care of the football,” Pruitt said. “We’re familiar with them, they’re familiar with us, so it’ll be about the details and tangibles of the plays.”

Echoed Smart: “The bottom line is the players have to go out there and execute. They’ve got to play with a passion, energy, and enthusiasm to beat the guy across from them and not make it about what our defensive coordinator calls or what their offensive coordinator calls. I just don’t think that matters a whole lot. It’s blocking, tackling, turnovers, explosive plays, it’s executing and doing it with a lot of passion.”

And, of course, having better players than the other side.