The Bulldogs are seeking to become the first Georgia team to go 10-0 since 1982 and the first to go 8-0 in SEC play for the first time in school history. They also are seeking to go 6-0 in the SEC East for the third time in six seasons under Smart. And, yes, win their fifth in a row over the Vols.
But Tennessee is bowed up and dangerous. Though Georgia was posted as an early three-touchdown favorite, the line slowly has crept down to 20 points as bettors’ money is flowing the Vols’ way.
For the Bulldogs and Smart, it’s not about Tennessee, though. It’s about achieving their standard, which ultimately is to prove better than everybody they play all year.
“So, outside factors are nothing but distractions,” Smart said. “They’re for people that want to find excuses and find reasons that they can’t play well and won’t play well. They can look to the weather, but I’ve never seen a guy that’s hungry to eat that’s worried about the weather.”
Some storylines as Saturday’s kickoff approaches:
Bennett’s No. 1
Raise your hand if you expected Georgia’s Stetson Bennett to be named a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award and the Burlsworth Trophy this season. The former goes to the best quarterback in the country, the latter is for the nation’s most outstanding player. Well, that happened this week, and Bennett should have a good chance of claiming either award if the Bulldogs can run the table.
Go ahead and dispense with the notion that Bennett is filling in for the injured JT Daniels. That narrative was tossed out of the window when a fully healthy Daniels practiced for two weeks before the Florida game and didn’t play in the 34-7 win over the Gators. When Georgia defeated Missouri 43-6 on Saturday, Daniels didn’t enter the game until the Bulldogs led 33-3 in the third quarter.
So Daniels is the backup quarterback. Say what you will about that decision, but the fact is Bennett hasn’t given the coaches any reason to reconsider. Bennett has played in eight games this season, made six starts, completed 80 of 120 passes for 1,412 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed 27 times for 193 yards. His 197.3 passer rating ranks No. 3 in the country, while his 17.65 yards per completion and 11.77 yards per attempt are both second-best among FBS quarterbacks.
Daniels’ numbers also have been strong. In limited work in four games, he has completed 74.4% of his passes for 651 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. He mostly handed off last week but finished with 82 yards on 8-of-11 passing with a touchdown and an interception.
Accordingly, Smart was barely asked about Georgia’s quarterback rotation this week. “They’re both playing well, and we’re just trying to get them both better,” he said.
Slowing Vols’ roll
Tennessee has the most explosive offense in the SEC. Georgia has the stingiest defense not just in the nation this season, but in decades.
Something will have to give Saturday.
Tennessee is optimistic and excited about first-year coach Josh Heupel’s offense, which moves so fast that it’s averaging almost three plays per minute (2.92). More important, the Vols are scoring on most of the possessions, and in a tremendously explosive way.
In a 45-42 win over Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington, they scored on a 75-yard pass on the first play of the game and a 72-yarder three plays later. And so it went. The Vols would possess the football fewer than 14 minutes on 10 possessions, taking a knee on the 11th.
Georgia counters with a defense that leads the nation in points allowed (6.6 pg) and scrimmage touchdowns allowed (5). Only the 1986 Oklahoma (56) and 1985 Michigan (51) defenses has given up fewer points through nine games than the 2021 Bulldogs (59).
Georgia also is second nationally in total defense (234.4 ypg), rush defense (81.3 ypg) and pass defense (151.1 ypg). Statistically, it’s their best unit since Erk Russell was coaching Georgia’s defense in 1971.
“Maybe as good as anybody that’s ever played the game as a unit,” Heupel said. “They always have good scheme. They’re always well-coached. They’re always extremely talented and extremely deep. Their length and speed is tough to prepare for. For us, we’ve just got to be efficient and have some balance.”
Leading the way for the Vols is quarterback Hendon Hooker, a transfer from Virginia Tech who didn’t open the season as the starter. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound senior comes in fourth in the nation in pass efficiency (190.01), having completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 1,894 yards with 21 touchdowns and two interceptions. Tennessee is third in SEC scoring at 38.2 points a game.
For the second consecutive game, Georgia will be without star outside linebacker Adam Anderson. The senior from Rome remains in Athens-Clarke County jail without bond on a rape charge. Anderson is scheduled to appear before Superior Court for a bond hearing at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
Anderson has been suspended from the football team since Nov. 1, when UGA said it was notified by Athens police that Anderson was being investigated on a rape allegation. The victim statement for the alleged crime was given on the afternoon of Oct. 29. That was the day the Bulldogs traveled to Jacksonville for the Florida game. Anderson made the trip and recorded seven tackles and a half-sack in the 34-7 victory.
UGA told the AJC this week the school was unaware of the investigation when Anderson played against the Gators. He has not participated in team activities since Nov. 1, including Saturday’s 43-6 win over Missouri.
As for Anderson’s position of “Sam” outside linebacker, most of his snaps have been absorbed by junior outside linebacker Nolan Smith. Senior Robert Beal, sophomore Mekhail Sherman and freshman Jamon Dumas-Johnson also got outside linebacker reps against Missouri.
Also, capable of playing the position are freshmen Chaz Chambliss, Smael Mondon and Xavian Sorey. Georgia also cross-trains inside linebackers Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall and Quay Walker.
No sooner had the Bulldogs gotten back to near full strength at the wide receiver position than they encountered another setback.
Sophomore Arian Smith suffered a leg fracture in Wednesday’s practice, according to 247Sports, citing sources. The injury is expected to require surgery, so Smith will be sidelined the remainder of the season.
That takes Georgia’s fastest football player back off the field. Smith returned to action Saturday after missing five consecutive games with a lower-leg bruise. Against Missouri, he caught one pass -- a 35-yard touchdown throw from Bennett.
The lead leg on Georgia’s NCAA 4x100-meter finalists team, Smith has been timed at 10.18 seconds in 100 meters. But he’s had a hard time avoiding injury to stay on the football field. Including four games last season, Smith has played in eight games his first two seasons.
The Bulldogs also welcomed the healthy return of wideouts Jermaine Burton (groin) and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (ankle) last week. They’re still without star wideouts George Pickens (knee) and Dominick Blaylock (hamstring), but they were able to provide scout-team work this week.
Georgia is hopeful that starting left tackle Jamaree Salyer is able to come back against the Vols. A senior, Salyer missed the Missouri game with a sprained foot suffered the previous week in practice. Smart said Salyer was ahead of schedule and could play against the Vols. Redshirt freshman Broderick Jones started in Salyer’s absence last week and played “OK,” according to Smart.
Remember Cade Mays? The former Georgia starter and freshman All-American lineman is expected to start for the Vols at right tackle. His brother, 6-foot-3, 295-pound sophomore Cooper Mays, also is expected to get the starting nod at center.
Playing alongside his brother is one of the main reasons Cade Mays gave for transferring to Tennessee after two seasons as a starting lineman from Georgia. Of course, there also was the matter of the lawsuit that his father, Kevin Mays, filed against UGA for severing the end of his finger on a chair during a recruiting visit before Cade Mays signed with Georgia.
Cade Mays has continued to battle injuries at Tennessee. But he has played well when he has been healthy. The 6-6, 325-pound senior has not allowed a sack this season and has earned SEC offensive lineman of the week twice this season, including for his play Saturday against Kentucky.