The Vols have made marked improvement in their third year under Pruitt, once a defensive coordinator at Georgia. They better have, because they haven’t been competitive with the SEC’s upper echelon for a while now. Including last year’s 43-14 loss to Georgia in Knoxville, they’ve been out-scored by the Bulldogs 122-26 in the last three meetings. That’s an average score of 40.6 to 8.6.
This year, we’re told, will be different. Kirby Smart says in no uncertain terms, this will be toughest tilt yet. And no matter the outcome, No. 2 Alabama awaits the Bulldogs next week in Tuscaloosa.
Here are five things that will have a hand in determining Saturday’s outcome:
1. Welcome back, Cade.
Tennessee says it did everything above board when it snatched Cade Mays out of the transfer portal. He started for the Bulldogs at left tackle against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, entered the transfer portal Jan. 7 and enrolled in classes at Tennessee on Jan. 8. But no tampering was done beforehand, the Vols insist. We know this because coach Jeremy Pruitt says so. Tennessee declined the AJC’s open-records requests to review Pruitt’s phone and email records.
Thanks to the pandemic, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey last week decided to approve Mays' waiver of the league’s long-standing intraconference transfer restriction, as well as for the others he had on his desk. That allowed Mays to start at right tackle against Missouri last week, and he’ll start there against Georgia.
Luckily for the Bulldogs, they continued to recruit offensive linemen after Mays signed two years ago. They’ve also recruited quite well at defensive end and outside linebacker.
So while you’re watching Saturday’s game, be sure to focus on Tennessee’s No. 68 (Mays) going against Georgia’s Adam Anderson (No. 19), Malik Herring (10), Nolan Smith (4), Azeez Ojulari (13) and Travon Walker (44).
2. Quarterback play
Saturday will represent Game 3 of the Stetson Bennett Era at Georgia. How long it lasts will depend largely on how things go against the Vols.
Working his way from former walk-on to starting quarterback is the feel-good story of the year so far in the SEC. The 6-foot, 198-pound junior has proved a lot in the first two games. He enters ranked No. 2 in the nation and in the SEC in QB rating (94.4), completing 65 percent of his passes for 451 yards and three touchdowns, with no turnovers.
The Vols have the best secondary than the Bulldogs have seen, feature an experienced defensive line and talented linebacker corps. If Georgia’s offense struggles with Bennett at the controls, expect Kirby Smart to make a move at quarterback. And 19 days after getting medical clearance to play, don’t be surprised if it’s Southern Cal transfer JT Daniels.
3. Running the rock
As is the case when these programs collide, the team that can run and/or stop the run should emerge victorious. Georgia had the decided advantage the past three years. It’s not so clear this time around.
The Vols come in with one of the best 1-2 punches in the SEC in senior Ty Chandler and sophomore Eric Gray. Gray has racked up seven touchdowns over the past four games, and the duo combined to rush for 195 yards and three TDs in Saturday’s 35-12 win over Missouri.
Those backs are good on their own, but they benefit from playing behind a line that features two other 5-star linemen in left guard Trey Smith and left tackle Wanya Morris before Mays made it three.
Conversely, Georgia’s offensive line and backfield are in rebuilding mode. The Bulldogs haven’t had a scoring run of more than 30 yards since D’Andre Swift’s 39-yard run against Kentucky last October. Meanwhile, Zamir White, has not had a run of more than 20 while starting Georgia’s past three games, and his longest gain on 110 career carries is 29 yards.
4. What about Delta?
The forecast has improved for Saturday, but rain still looks likely before, during and after kickoff. Thanks to Delta, a hurricane predicted to make landfall in Louisiana on Friday, there is a 77 percent chance of rain in Athens on Saturday. But there’s no way to know how heavy or light the rain might be until the storm system moves further inland. As of Thursday afternoon, predictions for northeast Georgia were for a “glancing blow.”
Both teams reported getting in a lot of “wet-ball work” during the week. That’s when managers dunk the football in buckets of water before every snap.
The Bulldogs had two rain games at home last season. They won both, 21-0 over Kentucky and 19-13 over Texas A&M.
5. Crowd control
UGA received a few complaints and some undeserved bad press because of what viewers perceived on TV as a bigger-than-expected crowd and a lack of social distancing for Saturday’s 27-6 win over Auburn.
Georgia officials insist that nothing of the sort was the case. Attendance for the game was announced as 20,524, which is 22.1 percent of the capacity for Sanford Stadium. But the AJC learned that the number of tickets scanned Saturday was only a little over 16,000.
Also, while, local ordinances allow fans to take off their masks once they reach their seats, every grouping was meticulously set up to be at least six feet apart, with many exceeding that.
If there was a problem, it was in the UGA student section, where some small groups gathered in the lower areas of the northside stands and tended to swoop in together to mug for TV cameras when they were pointed in their direction.
Josh Brooks, Georgia’s deputy AD for operations, said they will station more crowd-control personnel in those and other areas of the stadium to prevent similar impromptu congregations. But he said generally it wasn’t an issue, but that two-dimensional photography exaggerated the scene.
“The majority of the feedback we received was that everybody felt safe at the game, they felt it was a good operation, the ingress-egress, parking, traffic, restrooms, everything went smooth,” Brooks said. “And I’m not mad at the students. We’ll just have to monitor their sections better.”