No. 1 Georgia flexes with another domination of Tennessee
1 / 53
Georgia quarterback Carson Beck (15) celebrates a touchdown pass to Georgia tight end Brock Bowers (not pictured) during the first quarter against the Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, Saturday, November 18, 2023, in Knoxville, Tn. The Bulldogs won 38-10. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee owned the first 11 seconds of Saturday’s game at Neyland Stadium. No. 1 Georgia owned the other 59:49.
OK, maybe not every second after that, but the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs dominated all the big moments after Tennessee’s Jaylen Wright broke a 75-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. Now behind for the seventh time in eight SEC games this season, Georgia did what it always does. It scored 24 consecutive points on the way to what ended in another blowout, this one 38-10.
It was the Bulldogs’ seventh consecutive win over the Volunteers, who entered the game ranked 18th. But of even more historical significance was it represented Georgia’s 28th consecutive victory overall under coach Kirby Smart. He’s now tied with Alabama greats Bear Bryant and Gene Stallings for the most wins in a row by an SEC team.
“Yeah, I’ve gotta go play (Georgia) Tech next week, that’s the perspective I’ve got,” Smart said of the record in a full-to-overflowing media interview room after the game. “I’ve got a lot respect for (Tech), and I know how much that game means to us. There will be a time to look back on (the streak); there will be a time to celebrate that. It’s just not right now.”
Next for the Bulldogs is their Clean Old-Fashioned Hate rivalry matchup at Tech on Saturday (7 p.m., ABC). The Yellow Jackets (6-5) defeated Syracuse 31-22 on Saturday night to become bowl eligible.
In the meantime, Georgia has completed three consecutive seasons with perfect 8-0 conference records, a first in SEC history. The Bulldogs (11-0) already had clinched the SEC’s Eastern Division crown and the conference championship game berth that comes with it the previous week. They are set to play No. 8 Alabama in SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 2 (4 p.m., CBS).
The Crimson Tide (10-1, 7-0) defeated Chattanooga 66-10 on Saturday in Tuscaloosa. Though the West has been settled, Bama still has to play at Auburn in the Iron Bowl on Saturday.
Georgia will worry about all that later. On this day, the buzz in the Bulldogs’ locker room was about Carson Beck, their incredibly efficient quarterback. A 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior and first-year starter, Beck played almost flawlessly against the Vols, reserving some of his best work for third downs. Entering the game leading the nation in third-down conversion percentage (56%), the Bulldogs’ rate went up significantly as Beck helped convert first downs nine of 12 times in the first three quarters. The Bulldogs finished 9-of-13.
Georgia would roll up 472 yards. When Beck left the game midway through the fourth quarter, he was two yards shy of his sixth 300-yard passing game on the season. He delivered three more touchdowns, completed 24 of 30 passes and led the Bulldogs to 27 first downs.
“I’d say pretty good,” Beck said of how he’s piloting the offense at the moment. “It all comes down to preparation. Obviously each defense is always going to try to throw something different at us each week, whether it’s pressures or coverages. But I feel like I’m seeing things pretty well right now.”
Beck was dealing despite missing some of his key weapons again. Junior flanker Ladd McConkey sat out the game because of an ankle injury that kept him out of practice all week. Georgia also lost split end Rara Thomas to a foot injury after he made an 18-yard catch early in the game, and he did not return. Even the seemingly indestructible Brock Bowers was hobbling noticeably on his surgically repaired right ankle.
Still, eight different receivers caught passes Saturday. It was split end Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and slotback Dillon Bell who picked up the slack, finishing with seven catches for 91 yards and five for 90, respectively. Bell, who doubles as a wide receiver for the Bulldogs, also threw a 9-yard TD pass to Rosemy-Jacksaint on a toss sweep in the second quarter.
“Throwing that touchdown pass was great, but the way we handled adversity after them scoring on that first play was the big thing for me,” said Bell, a sophomore who also is a kick returner.
Other than that early touchdown, it was a terrible day for the Vols (7-4, 3-4). Even the great Dolly Parton’s appearance to perform the Vols’ theme song “Rocky Top” between the first and second quarters was a flop. Sound issues as the country music Hall of Famer tried to sing to the tune played by the Tennessee marching band had Parton confused on the lyrics and the crowd unable to follow along. But former Vols quarterback Peyton Manning escorting her down and back on the makeshift runway set up between quarters was a nice touch.
“Look at their conversion rate – that’s how you win,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. “Disappointing. We’ve got to regroup. We’re banged up. You guys saw that before the game, during the game. This game doesn’t care about it. We’ve got to come ready to play next Saturday.”
The Vols close the season here next week against Vanderbilt.
The Tennessee sellout crowd of 101,915 was lit up like a Christmas tree when Wright took game’s the first handoff through a huge hole at left guard, split safeties Tykee Smith and Javon Bullard and rambled 75 yards untouched to the end zone. From start to finish, the play took only 11 seconds.
It happened because linebacker Smael Mondon stunted to the left into the line of scrimmage, and no one filled in the inside gap left behind him. Wright had 15 yards on eight carries after that.
“It was just a missed fit,” Mondon said after the game. “I don’t want to get into specifics, but just a misread. We just had to make some adjustments. We weren’t really fazed by it. It’s a long game. We just had to make adjustments and play the next drive.”
The Bulldogs answered the Vols’ score with a series of long, methodical drives. The first one didn’t end with a touchdown, but the 11-play, 51-yard possession served notice to the Vols that the Bulldogs, too, would have some offensive success on this day. Peyton Woodring’s 42-yard field goal got Georgia on the scoreboard with 10:01 still remaining in the first quarter.
Georgia punted only twice, and the Bulldogs turned the ball over on downs on their last offensive series of the game. The other six possessions all ended in scores, five in touchdowns.
“Every rep he’s just getting faster, making checks and reads that much faster,” Bowers said of Beck. “That’s helped him go out there and perform at a higher level.”
Georgia lost right guard Tate Ratledge late in the first quarter. The junior from Rome injured his left knee in pass protection and had to be helped off the field at the 1:56 mark. Smart said that Ratledge banged knee caps with somebody, and X-rays afterward showed no permanent damage.
Ratledge was replaced in the lineup by sophomore Micah Morris, who played most of the game at left guard, while Dylan Fairchild switched left to right.
The Bulldogs said such resiliency and response to adversity is what has allowed them to sustain their record-breaking streak.
“Obviously that’s a super-cool achievement,” Beck said of Georgia winning its 28th game in a row. “There have been a lot of guys that came before us that started that and kind of trailblazed that. Obviously, that’s a super-cool goal to continue. But each week, we’re just trying to be 1-0. That’s where our focus is at.”
Said Smart: “The one thing I can control as a coach is how we sustain, how we retain. Our retention and our ability to sustain is incredible. We’ve got a great footprint to recruit from, unbelievable administration that supports what we want to do. And it’s not easy, guys. Like, it’s hard to win, and I don’t appreciate that sometimes until you’re talking to the (opposing) coach before the game. (They say) ‘Man, it’s hard to do what y’all have done.’ It is hard.”