Georgia, Tennessee collide one last time as SEC divisional foes
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
November 13, 2021 Knoxville, TN - Georgia's running back James Cook (4) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the first half during a NCAA football game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Georgia will arrive in Knoxville on Saturday flying the SEC’s Eastern Division championship banner for the last time.
For 31 years, winning one’s division has been the first and most critical goal of every SEC team. Win the division, and all things are possible. Come up short, and go ahead and start planning for a meaningless bowl game somewhere.
That goes away next year when the SEC expands to 16 teams with the additions of Oklahoma and Texas. For 2024 at least, the league will continue to play eight conference games. But the participants in the SEC Championship game will be the two teams at the top of the standings.
“It’ll be unique, a different experience,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of non-divisional competition. “Sometimes progress is growth; progress and change are good. I think we’re all comfortable with what we’ve done, but that doesn’t make it the best thing. I trust in the leadership of our conference that has us headed in that direction.”
Lately, at least, divisional play has been pretty good for the Bulldogs. Once a seemingly unreachable pinnacle, winning the Eastern Division has become an annual rite of passage under Smart. In the eight years of his reign, Georgia has captured the East crown and the SEC Championship game berth that comes with it six times. The one time since 2016 that the Bulldogs didn’t claim the division, COVID-19 had a grip on the nation and limited UGA’s all-SEC 2020 regular-season schedule to nine games.
Georgia won the East four times in the previous 23 years while under the direction of three different head coaches.
No program has enjoyed divisional play more than Alabama. The Crimson Tide will play in the conference title game for the 18th time Dec. 2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For the fourth time since 2012, their opponent will be Georgia. Bama has won in the previous three meetings.
“It has been fun to compete in the SEC and have a division to focus on doing what you have to do to win your division,” said coach Nick Saban, who has presided over 13 of the Tide’s Western Division crowns. “I’m sure it will be a little different next year, but I haven’t really given it a whole lot of thought. It’s still going to be about playing the best you can play and winning the games you’ve got to play to put yourself in position to play for the championship.”
While both Georgia and Alabama have punched their tickets to the title game, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to lose going forward. The Bulldogs’ hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff and becoming the first three-peat national champion could effectively go up in smoke with a loss to No. 18 Tennessee (7-3, 3-3 SEC) at Neyland Stadium. Seven teams enter the 12th weekend of the season with identical 10-0 records to the Bulldogs (7-0), who are seeking to complete an undefeated regular season for the third consecutive year.
After Tennessee, Georgia faces archrival Georgia Tech (5-5) in Atlanta. The Crimson Tide (9-1, 7-0 SEC) has Chattanooga in Tuscaloosa on Saturday, then closes the season as usual against Auburn in the Iron Bowl, which this year will be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But for the Bulldogs, especially, it’s first things first, and that’s the Volunteers. The two teams have had radically different journeys since departing SEC Media Days this summer as the East’s predicted No. 1 and No. 2 teams. Based on the talk then, there was a strong likelihood that they each arrive would here this week undefeated or at least tied in the division.
Instead, the Vols have been unable to uphold their end of the bargain. An early-season face-plant at Florida (29-16) was followed by a midseason loss to Alabama (34-20) in Tuscaloosa. Then, last week, the wheels came off in Columbia, Missouri. After trailing 13-7 at halftime, a pair of egregious second-half turnovers by quarterback Joe Milton III contributed to a 36-7 loss, the worst of the Josh Heupel era in terms of margin of defeat.
That represents quite a precipitous fall from a year ago when the Vols arrived in Athens carrying the CFP’s No. 1 ranking with thoughts of unseating the Bulldogs as the SEC East’s preeminent team. Georgia famously stomped them 27-13 in the rain.
But optimism abounded again this year, though not everybody was expecting Tennessee suddenly to be ready for primetime again.
“Most reasonable fans knew that Tennessee was going to take a step back this year,” said Jimmy Hyams, who has been covering the Vols for 39 years, now as a retired blogger for offthehooksports.com. “Nobody I knew thought they could match their 11-win season. Nobody I knew thought they’d win the Eastern Division over Georgia. But the disappointment is the loss to Missouri last week and the way they got waylaid by a team they scored 66 last year and 62 the year before in Missouri. They got their clocks cleaned, and that was extremely disappointing to everybody.”
In a way, the Vols’ struggles this season – and really going back to the turn of the century – offer perspective for the incredible run the Bulldogs find themselves in the midst of. Historically, it was Tennessee or Florida that was always getting in the way of Georgia being able to contend for championships. Under Smart, the Bulldogs are 6-2 against the Gators and have won six in a row against Vols entering Saturday’s contest.
Georgia lost to Tennessee in Athens in Smart’s first season. It took a ridiculous personal-foul penalty and Hail Mary touchdown in the final 10 seconds, but the loss was official nonetheless, 34-31.
Smart and the Bulldogs are 88-13 since that ill-fated finish seven years ago. Today in Knoxville, Georgia seeks its 28th win in a row under Smart. Only two SEC coaches have put together such a win streak, and both were coaching at Alabama at the time. Their names are Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings.
Even Saban hasn’t had a run like the Bulldogs currently are on under Smart.
“I remember our first year, we went 8-and-5,” said Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, who was Smart’s offensive line coach from 2016-19. “To turn that program around to where it is now, I don’t know that it’s ever been done. It’s incredible to keep that consistency. I consider (Smart) a friend, obviously, but nobody will out-work him.”
Even Heupel spoke glowingly of what he has seen from the Bulldogs under Smart. He happened to arrive at Tennessee three years ago, or at precisely the time Georgia achieved liftoff on this historic streak. Each year, the Vols have caught the Bulldogs late in the season. That means Heupel and his staff have reviewed the game-by-game video of the progress Georgia has made from start to finish in each of those seasons.
The improvement, he said, is evident.
“They’re just a really good football team,” Heupel said. “They were good at the beginning of the year, but they’ve continued to get better throughout the course of the season, and that’s what good teams do.”
Which is not to say that the Vols plan to just roll over and allow the Bulldogs to continue unimpeded on their well-worn path back to Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Like Alabama, which had Tennessee’s number for long before the Vols finally knocked them off last year in Neyland Stadium, Georgia represents the SEC’s standard of excellence and thus the statue that needs to be toppled.
The Vols have won 14 games in a row on their home field, the third longest streak in America. Making it 15 while knocking off the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs in the process would represent a foundational building block for what the football program is trying to rebuild, so they’re approaching the game accordingly.
“I expect it to be as electric an atmosphere as we’ve ever had, which is as good as there is in college football,” Heupel said of the environment he expects for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. nationally televised competition. “You know, crowd noise can be a factor in a football game. … Some of that happened to us last year (in Athens). We need to make it extremely difficult for them to communicate. That needs to be part of the football game, and I certainly expect our crowd to be ready for this one when we kick off.”
Hyams agrees. He expects Tennessee to play its best game of the year.
“I think they’ll play their butts off,” Hyams said of the Vols. “I think the players like this coaching staff, and the coaching staff likes the players. I don’t see ‘give up’ in this team, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t come out and play really hard. I don’t think they’re just going to throw in the towel.
“The other part of that is, I’m not sure if Georgia will play real inspired football. It’s hard to get up in back-to-back-to-back weekends after Florida and Missouri and Ole Miss. That can take a little starch out of you. I’m not sure if the Bulldogs can be as sharp as they have been. I also think Tennessee was embarrassed last week and will come out fighting.”
That’s why more than 100,000 folks will show up Saturday. The Vol Nation will be carrying six years of frustration with them. And with divisions going away next year, who knows when they’ll get another shot at this Georgia juggernaut?