Tennessee Vols pulling out all stops vs. No. 2 Georgia

Credit: AJC file photo/Hyosub Shin

Credit: AJC file photo/Hyosub Shin

ATHENS – Much has been made of all of Georgia’s winning streaks, and deservedly so as many are unprecedented. But the Tennessee Vols have a pretty good one going themselves and they’d like to keep it going Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Neyland Stadium.

The Vols (7-3, 3-3 SEC) have won 14 games in a row on their home field by the Tennessee River. The fact is, the last team to beat them there was Georgia when it won 41-17 in Knoxville on Nov. 13, 2021. Since then it has been all W’s for UT between the checkerboard squares.

“It’s a huge challenge when you go on the road in the SEC,” said Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart, who carries a 27-game winning streak into Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. kickoff (CBS). “I say it all the time: It doesn’t matter who, where, when, it doesn’t matter anybody’s record. The only thing that matters is when you’re on the road in the SEC you’re going to be in a really tough environment.”

Because of its complete enclosure and steep, vertical seating configuration, Neyland long has been known as one of the loudest venues in the SEC. It’s also located on the edge of a valley that descends to the Tennessee River.

Then there’s the team the Vols field. Since coach Josh Heupel took over three years ago, they run a “fastball offense” that gets off plays one after the other in a matter of seconds. Best known an explosive passing attack that specializes wide sets in deep throws, Tennessee this season is going break-neck speed mainly via a ground attack. They’ve produced 200 or more yards rushing seven times this season – all wins -- and 22 times during the Heupel era.

And, yes, with Joe Milton III behind the center, they have that quarterback-run element that has given the Bulldogs fits at times.

“The prep for that is kind of the challenge,” Smart said. “Our team has to embrace that. It’s different when you go on the road in our league.”

Meanwhile, the Vols are pulling out all the stops. They’ve announced that country music Hall of Famer Dolly Parton is going to be at Neyland for Saturday’s game. The Vols already have circulated a video of the 77-year-old star urging “101,000 friends” to join her for Saturday’s game.

And, yes, Smart does know who Dolly Parton is. He infamously claimed to NOT know who Miley Cyrus was when a “Wrecking Ball” reference was made earlier this year.

“I’ve got parents who watched the ‘Grand Ole Opry,’” Smart said with a smile. “I was NOT aware she was going to attend the game.”

So, the Bulldogs will have to overcome that, too. Their bigger concern, however, is getting off to a better start than they’ve been getting off to in SEC games this season.

When Ole Miss marched down the field on its opening drive last Saturday in Athens and scored on an 11-play, 75-yard drive, the Bulldogs fell behind in the first quarter of an SEC contest for the sixth time in seven conference games this season. The 45 points Georgia has given up in the opening period represent 28.3% of opponents’ scoring on the year. Conversely, the Bulldogs’ 65 points in the first quarter are the fewest by far for them and represent only 16% of their overall scoring of 40.6 points per game.

“Yeah, that’s something we’re stressing,” sophomore defensive end Mykel Williams said. “We’re trying to figure out ways to start off faster in the first half and the second half. That’s something Tennessee does very well. They’re explosive and start of fast. We have to figure out how to affect and control that.”

The first quarter has been the Vols’ second-best scoring period. They’ve outscored opponents 89-29 in the first quarter and 99-66 in the second.

Georgia’s best work has been in the middle periods. The Bulldogs have outpaced opponents 256-54 over the second and third quarters.

The Bulldogs must be careful not allow Tennessee too much momentum, especially with what’s expected to be a capacity crowd of 101,915 inside Neyland. Of that number, the Vols allow visitors only about 6,000 tickets.

Tennessee-Georgia always has been circled as one of the SEC’s marquee games this season. This year, the teams were projected 1-2 in the conference’s Eastern Division. But the Vols suffered an early stumble on the road against Florida, losing 29-16 on Sept. 16. They also dropped a 34-20 decision at Alabama and lost 36-7 to Missouri last week.

“No matter what you do the previous week, you gotta put the game behind you.” Heupel told reporters Monday in Knoxville. “Certainly we understand the quality of the opponent that’s coming to town this week. Our guys understand who they are, what they’re about and the way that they’re gonna play. Will be a great test for us.”

Last year, the Vols came to Athens as the nation’s newly-minted No. 1-ranked team. But Georgia dispatched them fairly easily. The Bulldogs won 27-13, leading 24-6 at halftime but a hard rain cooled the second-half proceedings.

The fact is, Georgia hasn’t struggled much against Tennessee no matter where they’ve played. The Bulldogs have won six in a row in the series, played annually since the conference went to divisions in 1992. The last time Georgia lost was in Athens in 2016. That was Smart’s first year as coach and his team lost three at home. After dropping a double-overtime loss to South Carolina in 2019, the Bulldogs have won 25 in a row at Sanford Stadium.

That’s the type of home winning streak the Vols would like to establish at their place. Figuring out how to beat the Bulldogs there would be a nice start.

Tennessee will be feeling pressure to do that Saturday.

“Anytime Dolly’s gonna be around it certainly adds pressure, absolutely,” Heupel said with a laugh Monday. “For Tennesseans, that’s, you know, one that everybody will enjoy seeing.”

Smart expects the Bulldogs to get all they can handle from the Vols. The Bulldogs were posted as only a nine-point favorite by Ceasar’s sports book on Monday. That’s the smallest line UGA has had all year.

“What they’ve been able to do defensively this year is what to me has been really impressive,” Smart said. “Really good offense, really good defense, and their special teams is the phase nobody talks about. Their special teams are really elite. You can tell they put a lot of time and effort into it.”

Plus, Dolly.

About the Author