5 things to know as Georgia heads to Tennessee focused on ‘winning the now’
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
November 13, 2021 Knoxville, TN - Georgia's head coach Kirby Smart and Tennessee's head coach Josh Heupel shake hands after Georgia won 41-17 over Tennessee during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
ATHENS — No. 1 Georgia could lose to Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday and still achieve all its goals for the season, including repeating as SEC champions and winning an unprecedented third national championship in a row.
But bring up that scenario to the Bulldogs at your own peril. At this point – having won 27 games in a row and 37 consecutive regular-season contests – losing almost is unfathomable to consider.
Should Georgia beat the Volunteers, it will tie coach Kirby Smart with Alabama’s Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings for the most consecutive wins in SEC history (28). Even the hyper-focused Smart, who was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up idolizing those coaches, acknowledged what a special accomplishment that would be.
But Smart was not interesting in discussing anything beyond what it will take for the Bulldogs to win Saturday. Don’t bother bringing up streaks or championships.
“Just trying to win the now,” Smart said of the mounting historical pressure on Georgia. “We’re literally just trying to win the now and today and be where our feet are; just trying to dominate the moment and not get caught up in all the noise. Best way to do that is to have good leadership that focuses on humility and those things.”
Georgia (10-0, 7-0) has clinched the Eastern Division’s berth in the SEC Championship game. There it will meet Western Division-champion Alabama (9-1, 7-0) for the fourth time since 2012. This is the last season for divisions in SEC play.
The Crimson Tide has games remaining against Chattanooga on Saturday and Auburn on Nov. 25. The Bulldogs have to get by the Vols (7-3, 3-3) and at Georgia Tech (5-5, 4-3 ACC) on Nov. 25 to secure their third consecutive undefeated regular season.
It would behoove the Bulldogs to remain undefeated. Entering the 12th weekend of college football season, Georgia is one of seven teams sitting at 10-0. That’s most this late in the season since the Bowl Championship Series began in 1998.
Here are some other things to consider heading into Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. contest (CBS):
One of the biggest uncertainties heading into Saturday’s game is the mental state of the Vols. Tennessee is coming off a 36-7 loss to Missouri, the worst loss of the Josh Heupel era in terms of margin of defeat. That loss eliminated the Vols from their preseason goals of a CFP berth or New Year’s Six Bowl.
The question, then, is what might be their level of motivation against a Georgia team that has beaten them six times in a row by an average of 26.2 points per game? The Vols insist it’s high.
“It’s a big-time game for us on both sides,” Tennessee senior center Cooper Mays said this week. “Tennessee is working to put our program back on top, and this is one of our big steppingstones, getting a win over them. I’ve got a win over all the Big 3 other than Georgia so, trying to put that together.”
If nothing else, the Vols are glad to be playing at home. They carry a 14-game home win streak into Saturday’s game. Tennessee hasn’t played a conference game at Neyland Stadium since playing host to Texas A&M on Oct. 14. Their past three SEC games have been on the road against Alabama, Kentucky and Missouri.
The Vols broke out the big guns when it came to promoting Saturday’s game. Country music Hall of Famer Dolly Parton sent out a message via Tennessee’s social-media channels urging “101,000 of my friends” to join her at Neyland Stadium for the Vols’ game against Georgia.
Parton is expected to perform sometime during Saturday’s proceedings, likely on the field during a timeout or a break in the game. The expectation is that she’ll sing “Rocky Top,” Tennessee’s beloved theme song.
The 77-year-old Parton is a Tennessee native, born in the town of Pittman Center. But her presence Saturday is not a purely heartfelt motivation. She and Tennessee announced a partnership in September to produce a special Vols edition of her coming album “Rockstar.” That record includes a live version of Parton signing “Rocky Top.” They’re also producing a line of co-branded merchandise.
“My East Tennessee roots run deep, and I am so proud to be partnering with the Vols on a line of merchandise,” Parton said in a news release circulated by the school earlier this year. “I’ve performed ‘Rocky Top’ so many times live in my concerts through the years, and I know how much that song means to Vols fans. I am thrilled to have the chance to include my version of the song on a special edition of my new Rockstar album as part of this partnership.”
Georgia obviously has played well enough not to lose a road game in three years. The last time the Bulldogs lost in a opponent’s stadium was 41-24 to Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2020.
But Georgia certainly hasn’t been as dominant away from Sanford Stadium as it was the previous two seasons. It has played only two true road games this season, at Auburn on Sept. 30 and Vanderbilt on Oct. 14. The Bulldogs struggled early in both of those games.
Georgia trailed Auburn by a touchdown into the third quarter and remained tied well into the fourth before pulling away for a 27-20 victory. The Bulldogs also fell behind the Commodores 7-0 and struggled to put them away on the way to a harder-than-expected 37-20 win.
Overall, Georgia has been a slow-starting SEC team. The Bulldogs have found themselves behind in the first quarter of six of their seven conference games. That could be a dangerous proposition inside Neyland Stadium.
Neyland is the second-largest football venue in the SEC, with a capacity of 101,915. The way the bowled stadium is vertically configured and its location on the banks of the Tennessee River makes it one of the loudest stadiums in the SEC when the home crowd is motivated.
“Neyland presents one of the toughest ones in the country in terms of environment and noise,” said Smart, who also played there every other year in 10 seasons at Alabama. “But, you know, we emphasize that every week. We emphasize (noise management) when we’re at home, too. It’s something that’s continuous for us, even in the offseason. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s hard.”
In Carson they trust
One of the main reasons Georgia has been able to overcome its slow starts has been the play of quarterback Carson Beck. In his first season as the Bulldogs’ starter, Beck is on a record pace passing the football. His 72.2 completion percentage ranks sixth nationally and is on pace to break the school record established last season by Stetson Bennett (68.3).
Beck is averaging 302.2 yards passing per game, with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. His 3,022 yards is the 10th most passing yards in a season in Georgia history and he needs 375 more yards to jump past Eric Zeier (1994) into the No. 5 spot.
Beck’s best work has come in the biggest moments, particularly on third downs. Georgia leads the nation in third-down conversions at 56%. Beck led the Bulldogs’ fourth-quarter comeback against Auburn and commandeered four consecutive scoring drives in the second half in the 30-21 win over No. 9 Missouri on Nov. 4.
Helping Beck and the Bulldogs’ cause is they finally have all their offensive weapons on the field after missing key players for each of the first 11 weeks of the season.
C.J. Allen comes through
Georgia will be missing at least one key player when it arrives in Knoxville. Linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, a junior All-American, is expected to miss his second consecutive game with a broken forearm. The two-year starter suffered the fracture making a fourth-quarter tackle of Missouri quarterback Brady Cook on Nov. 4.
Freshman C.J. Allen came through in a big way in Dumas-Johnson’s absence. He led the Bulldogs with nine tackles and sack in Saturday’s 52-17 win over Ole Miss. Allen and fellow freshman Raylen Wilson logged the majority of snaps at the Mike linebacker position.
“They got a lot of reps in the spring, they got to work in the summer and they were in camp,” Smart said. “They’re not, like, where you want a veteran linebacker to be, by no means. But they’ve played a lot of football, they’ve taken a lot of reps, they’ve got a good coach and they have a lot of good players around them to help them communicate. The hope is no matter who’s up, they can step up and play.”
All-American tight end Brock Bowers and right tackle Amarius Mims will be available for the second consecutive week.