No. 1 Georgia continues its drive for perfection

Georgia's running back James Cook (4) scores a touchdown in the second half against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. Georgia won 41-17 over Tennessee. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Georgia's running back James Cook (4) scores a touchdown in the second half against Tennessee at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Saturday, November 13, 2021. Georgia won 41-17 over Tennessee. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – “We’re worried about Charleston Southern right now.”

Kirby Smart actually said that after Saturday’s game against Tennessee. And he kept a straight face the whole time.

The No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (10-0, 8-0 SEC), 41-17 winners over the Vols, play host to the Buccaneers (4-5, 3-4 Big South) in the final home game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday (noon, SECN+). Charleston Southern is coming off a 33-24 win over Gardner-Webb in double overtime.

Including the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech (3-7, 2-6 ACC) in Atlanta, the Bulldogs likely will be favored by a combined total of more than 50 points in these last two games.

Meanwhile, with Auburn and Texas A&M both losing on Saturday, No. 2-ranked Alabama (9-1, 5-1) has effectively wrapped up the SEC’s Western Division. The Crimson Tide would have to lose their remaining games against Arkansas (7-3, 3-3) at home and Auburn (6-4, 3-3) on the road to let it slip. They hold the tiebreaker over Ole Miss (8-2, 4-2) but not to Texas A&M (7-3, 4-3), which plays Prairie View this week then concludes the season on the road at LSU (4-6, 2-5).

Smart’s comment reflects the Bulldogs’ drive for perfection this season. With few exceptions, players and coaches aren’t interested in lauding their accomplishments to date. Those include the earliest clinch ever of the Eastern Division, a 10-0 record for the first time since 1982 and the only 8-0 SEC slate in school history.

“A couple of my teammates might beat me up for saying this, but, you know, it kind of means nothing to me,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said of going undefeated in SEC play. “We’re getting toward the end of the season and we’ve got to keep on winning. That’s my focus.”

Some other things we learned on Saturday:

QB questions

Stetson Bennett continues to perform at a high level as Georgia’s quarterback, but that hasn’t stopped the questions about how the Bulldogs are handling the position.

CBS weighed in on the situation in the middle of its broadcast on Saturday. Announced Brad Nessler shared they they caught up with JT Daniels’ parents, Steve and Allie Daniels, earlier in the day Saturday and got their thoughts on their son playing only briefly in a backup role in one game since returning from a back injury a month ago. Daniels did not play at all against Tennessee or Florida despite being sufficiently recovered from a back-muscle strain to compete.

“This is the first week that he has looked good enough,” Nessler shared. “This week, Jordan Palmer, his personal quarterback guru, coach, whatever you want to call it, flew into Athens and they kind of went through all these mechanics and all that trying to get ready for the end of the season.”

According to people with knowledge of the situation, Daniels expected to play against Tennessee on Saturday and was disappointed he didn’t. But CBS reporter Jamie Erdahl said there is no issue between the junior Daniels and senior Stetson Bennett, who has started the last six games and seven overall.

“I feel it’s important to tell everybody that the dynamic between Stetson Bennett and JT Daniels on the sideline is truly leading Stetson as a starter,” sideline reporter Erdahl said. “JT supports him in a way that all quarterbacks do -- talking over indicators of coverage and what they’re seeing. But it’s not as if these two are still battling. The team understands that this is Stetson’s spot and JT is working with him hand in hand.”

Smart was as transparent as he’s been all season about it after Saturday’s game.

“I’ve always thought Stetson was a good player,” Smart said. “You say, well why wasn’t he the one? Well, at the time we were going with JT.”

So far, Georgia hasn’t needed to turn back to Daniels. But they may eventually.

Alabama famously went back and forth between Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts during their championship runs. Smart and the Bulldogs know this better than anybody.

“JT Daniels has to be ready,” CBS analyst Gary Danielson said. “Is there going to be a game? When is it? Is it is it going to be the SEC championship game or playoff game where they may need him? That is the discipline he has to do. He owes it to his teammates to be ready if it’s needed.”

Stet on the run

Once again, Bennett’s legs proved to be as valuable as his arm in keeping the chains moving. He was sacked twice Saturday for a loss of 18 yards. But he also gained 40 yards on six runs, which included two designed zone-read keepers.

“I thought his feet were a big difference in the game, his athleticism,” Smart said. “The play he made on the (9-yard) touchdown run was special. It was a decision (to run), he made it and he stuck it. He made some plays with his feet. He made some plays with his arm. He can still play better.”

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Bennett was asked if he likes running the football.

“Honestly, my dad has tried to get me to run more because I’ve always been pretty fast,” Bennett said. “But it’s always a little less painful the next day to throw it.”

Defensive adjustments

Georgia’s defense was on its heels against Tennessee early on, falling behind 7-0 and 10-7 in the first quarter. But the Bulldogs made some quick adjustments, and the Vols didn’t know what hit them for the next two quarters.

After gaining 159 yards on 26 plays in the opening quarter, Tennessee managed only 15 for 25 yards in the second quarter and 19 for 67 in the third. When Georgia finally called off the Dogs in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs led 41-10.

Tennessee coach Josh Heupel had a simple answer for what happened.

“They got us with the pressure,” Heupel said. “We struggled with protection. We got the next drive going, we air-mail a ball and end up throwing a pick. … They’re a good football team, very good defensively. They’ve got really good personnel and they play their scheme extremely well.”

Indeed, the Bulldogs collected six sacks. Three of them were by linebacker Channing Tindall. Tindall, who primarily plays inside linebacker, ended up absorbing some of the outside linebacker reps that normally go to Adam Anderson. Anderson missed his second game since coming under investigation on a rape charge Nov. 1.

Another adjustment Georgia made was bringing Dan Jackson into the game at strong safety and moving safety Christopher Smith to the star position instead of Latavious Brini. Smith’s superior coverage skills took away the much of the Vols’ midrange passing game.

“Chris has some good man-to-man ability,” Smart said. “We had to play a different style this week and I thought the changes we made really helped us.”

Flu, injuries dog Georgia

Georgia had several players sick with the flu, according to Smart, and several others went down in the game with injuries of varying degrees of seriousness.

Star defensive tackle Jalen Carter and starting right guard Warren Ericson were among “about five” Bulldogs who tried to play despite having the flu.

“We tried to IV him,” Smart said of Carter. “He had over a 100-degree fever and we had to pull him at halftime because of his temperature. Warren Ericson was sick with the flu; ‘Fitz’ (tight end John FitzPatrick) was sick with the flu. We had several guys that were struggling, a little sick and under the weather.”

Several frontline players went down during the contest with injuries. Noseguard Jordan Davis came back in the game later but had to helped off the field in the first half. Outside linebacker Nolan Smith hyperextended his left elbow examined after making a tackle with 11:05 to play. He was examined on the field for some time but late word was that it did not dislocate.

Senior defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt inexplicably was still in the game with 26 seconds remaining when he had to be helped off the field with a knee injury. Smart intimated that none of the injuries were thought to be serious but didn’t know right after the game.

The Bulldogs should feel grateful that Charleston Southern is the opponent next week. That should mean extensive rest – and healing – for most of the starters.

Outstanding linebacker play

It was a big day for Georgia’s inside linebackers. Dean, Tindall and Quay Walker combined for 25 tackles, six tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

“Our linebackers are really good players, even better leaders, and well-coached,” Smart said of coach Glenn Schumann’s unit. “Those three guys have played a lot of football around here. We’re certainly going to miss them when they’re gone. They practice as hard as anybody on the team and Nakobe, Channing, and Quay have no egos. It’s just another microcosm of the entire team when you watch that unit. They don’t get upset over who starts, they don’t get upset over who makes plays, they make a lot of calls and they lead our defense.”

Tindall, who had only one sack in the previous nine games, had three on Saturday, one of which forced a late fumble to end Tennessee’s last meaningful threat. Tindall is assuming some of the responsibilities vacated by Anderson due to his recent arrest.

“He’s taken on that role,” Smart said. “He’s always embraced that role on third down of being a guy that can rush the passer. We were fortunate that he was able to do that tonight.”