Bradley’s Buzz: At last, UGA faces a test of its Eastern eminence

Credit: AJC file photo

Credit: AJC file photo

Here we go – No. 1 versus No. 2, though it’s surprising that enough Associated Press voters felt a 38-point home victory over Kentucky was more impressive than Ohio State’s 13-point road win at Penn State. But whatever. Tennessee got a poll bump, and now Athens gets a game the likes of which, at least numerically, the Classic City has never seen.

ExploreNo. 1 vs. No. 2 - The hype is justified

(Maybe you’re wondering where Georgia, the 1980 national champ, and Clemson, the 1981 titlist, were ranked when they met on Labor Day night in 1982. The Bulldogs were No. 7, the Tigers No. 11. Georgia won 13-7. Herschel and his broken thumb were deployed as decoys.)

Georgia is No. 1. Tennessee is tied with the Buckeyes for No. 2, though the Vols drew three more first-place votes than The OSU. (The coaches’ poll kept Ohio State a solid No. 2. Coaches tend to be more rigid than media folks.) This has been quite the climb for a team that, in preseason, wasn’t ranked in either survey. Indeed, the Big Orange will be the chic choice to prevail Saturday.

Tennessee has beaten five ranked teams, though it has been a while since Pitt has been seen as such. Georgia has beaten one – on the Saturday before Labor Day. This could be the game where the Bulldogs are revealed as more a function of their schedule than a dominant force, though it’s hard to deem a team that has beaten eight opponents by an average of 31 points anything less than fearsome. That said …

The Florida game was a handy example of Georgia 2022: The Bulldogs led by 25 and won by 22, but somehow it seemed unsatisfying. It’s not easy for a defending champ to dazzle us – we’ve just seen it win a title; we know what it can do. Nor is it easy for a defending champ to produce a peak performance every week because – let’s face it – nobody on this schedule could beat even an off-peak Georgia. Nobody yet, anyway.

Tennessee averages 49.4 points; Georgia averages 41.8. If this becomes a Big 12 scoring spree, the Vols can win. (They beat Alabama 52-49.) If it doesn’t, the Bulldogs win. Their opponents average 10.5 points; Tennessee’s average 21. The only common opponent is Florida. Georgia beat the Gators 42-20; Tennessee won 37-33.

As a quarterback, Josh Heupel led Oklahoma to the 2000 national championship, beating Florida State – it was Mark Richt’s final game as offensive coordinator – in the Orange Bowl. As the Sooners’ offensive coordinator, he was pushed aside to make room for Lincoln Riley. He then worked at Utah State and Missouri. He became UCF’s head coach, succeeding Scott Frost, but his three seasons in Orlando saw diminishing returns: 12-1, then 10-3, then 6-4.

Tennessee fired Jeremy Pruitt on Jan. 18, 2021 – late in the coach-changing cycle. That same day, Phillip Fulmer resigned as athletic director. He was replaced by Danny White of UCF, who, having hired Heupel once, hired him again. This wasn’t considered a knockout hire, though the Vols had run through so many coaches – from Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley to Butch Jones to Pruitt over 12 stupefying years – that they’d ceased to be a destination program. They’d become a desperate program. But here they are, sleek and stylish and unbeaten.

Under Kirby Smart, Georgia has lost regular-season games – at Auburn in 2017, at LSU the next year, to South Carolina the next – and still won the SEC East. That won’t happen if Tennessee wins Saturday. The Vols would have to lose twice over their final three games not to take the division title. Those games are against Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

There’s a chance the SEC will again constitute half the College Football Playoff’s field of four. But what happens if Alabama beats Tennessee for the conference title? The one-loss Vols would have wins over Bama and Georgia. The one-loss Tide would have a win over Tennessee and a league championship. Georgia would have a Sept. 3 win over Oregon. Would that be enough for a third SEC entrant?

The Bulldogs have played for the league title four times in five years. Unless you count Florida in the COVID year, they haven’t faced an intra-division test of this magnitude. Win Saturday and Georgia stays on track for a second consecutive national title. Lose Saturday and it might miss the playoff.

Those are high stakes, yes, but the belief is that the Bulldogs have awaited this sort of game all season. The belief is that they’ll enjoy their Saturday very much.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and collated by yours truly, available to all who register on AJC.com for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Bradley’s Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’d be obliged if you’d give it a try.

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