All eyes on No. 1 Georgia’s defense vs. Tennessee

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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110621 ATHENS: All eyes will be on Georgia's Travon Walker (44) and the Bulldogs' top-ranked defense as they take on Tennessee and its high-octane offense at Neyland Stadium in Knoville on Saturday. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – After Kirby Smart’s first Georgia team lost to Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson-coached team in 2016, Smart vowed never again to be short-changed on preparation time for a gimmick offense.

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Not that the triple-option is necessarily a gimmick offense. It was just one that the Bulldogs rarely saw the rest of the season and therefore required intensive attention the week of the game. So, from that point forward, Georgia installed brief practice periods every week to go over the vagaries of defending the option and the cut-blocking that goes with it.

The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs (9-0, 7-0 SEC) are getting ready to face a gimmick offense of a different sort Saturday. The Tennessee Volunteers (5-4, 3-3), in their first season under coach Josh Heupel, are finding success with Heupel’s fast-break, hurry-up offense. Leading the nation in plays per minute at 2.92, the Vols quickly are morphing into one of the more explosive offenses in the SEC.

Tennessee had the ball a total of only 14 minutes against Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington, Ky., yet managed to defeat the Wildcats 45-42. Two of the Vols’ first four plays in the game went for touchdowns of more than 70 yards.

But to the Bulldogs’ credit, they saw this coming for a while. And similar to those years of playing Tech’s option every year, they’ve been preparing for it.

“For the past three to four weeks, we’ve taken periods and worked really hard in anticipation of this coming, kind of like you do when you have a triple option,” Smart said this week. “So, we’ve worked periods to practice that, to work on our substitution patterns so we can sub our players. … We did a couple periods each and every week to make sure that we’re prepared for it.”

So much for the cliche of preparing for opponents one week at a time. But despite the disparate season scenarios of the two teams, this remains a very important game, but for different reasons.

The Bulldogs have clinched the Eastern Division title and the SEC Championship game berth that comes with it. That would still be there for them even with an upset loss as a three-touchdown favorite.

But at this point, Georgia feels like it is involved in a weekly beauty contest. As the undisputed No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Bulldogs’ weekly exploits are broken down and examined like a jeweler looking for flaws in a diamond.

And apparently it’s not something the Bulldogs resent. They’ve come to embrace the opportunity to show doubters how good they are.

“We can’t really control what other people say about us,” junior receiver Kearis Jackson said. “We just like to go out there and keep winning football games and doing what we do at Georgia. We’re just motivated that we get to go out there and play another football game.”

However, Tennessee feels like it has a lot to prove as well. The Vols have been in an extended slump since Phillip Fulmer retired as coach in 2008. Since then they’ve had seven coaches, including interims, and rarely have been a factor in the SEC race.

The Vols aren’t in the hunt this season either, but Heupel is working hard to change that. His high-caliber offense is playing a big role in that effort. Though the Kentucky win is the only win in the past three games, they hung tough and late against both Alabama and Ole Miss. And through it all have been explosive plays.

That’s why a close-to-capacity crowd is expected in 102,000-seat Neyland Stadium on Saturday, why CBS chose it as the “SEC Game of the Week” and why SEC Network’s “SEC Nation” will be on campus. Everybody wants to see how the nation’s top defense handles the SEC’s hottest offense.

Recruits want to see how the Vols hold up as well. It’s homecoming weekend at Tennessee, and Heupel and his staff want to put on a good show with all this positive attention directed at Rocky Top for once.

“For us, I think it’s a big game,” Heupel said this week. “You can get caught up in the emotion of the game. I think we have to play with a ton of passion and not get caught up in the emotion of it. We have to do the ordinary things at a really high level. If we do that, then we’ll be ready to compete at a high level, too.”

Georgia, which will be looking for its fifth consecutive win in the series, has some motivation as well. The Bulldogs will be looking to go 10-0 for the first time since 1982 and 8-0 in SEC play for the first time since divisional play began in 1992.

But mainly it’s about maintaining perfection. Georgia is riding a defense that is being compared with Alabama’s in 2011 and Oklahoma’s in 1985 for sheer dominance. The Bulldogs don’t plan to be shown up by some flighty offense that spreads players from sideline to sideline and operates like there’s a train the catch at the end of every possession.

To slow something like that takes preparation, and Georgia maintains that it has put in the work this week.

“There’s nothing you can really do to make sure you’re prepared for that kind of pace of play,” Smart said of Vols’ hurry-up mentality. “It’s almost impossible to simulate in practice. So, a lot of it is knowledge, understanding it, and we want our guys to be able to do that. We want our guys to be able to play fast and execute.”

The Bulldogs have been planning to do just that – for weeks now.

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