Bradley’s Buzz: The Vols’ rise has made Georgia’s season more intriguing

This is Kirby Smart’s seventh season as Georgia’s coach. His Bulldogs have won the SEC East four times. They’re 34-5 against East opponents, 31-2 over the past five-plus years. The exceptions were a stunning overtime loss to South Carolina in 2019 and a Jacksonville thumping by Florida in 2020, the COVID season.

South Carolina was coached in 2019 by Will Muschamp, now Georgia’s defensive coordinator. Florida’s coach in 2020 was Dan Mullen, lately of ESPN. Of current SEC East coaches, none have beaten Smart’s Georgia.

Excepting Kentucky, where Mark Stoops has been ensconced since 2013, every East school has changed coaches since Smart arrived in 2016. Tennessee and Florida, the only East programs historically comparable with Georgia, have changed coaches twice. Smart has worked against 13 different Eastern coaches in seven seasons. None have beaten him twice. Stoops is Kentucky’s winningest coach ever; he’s 0-6 against Smart.

Florida made noises in 2020, winning the East with Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts The four-loss Gators finished No. 13 to Georgia’s No. 7 in the AP poll. Minus the Kyles, Florida started the 2021 season 5-6, whereupon Mullen was fired.

The Tennessee that will grace Sanford Stadium on Saturday is the sort of East challenger Smart’s Bulldogs haven’t known. Maybe the Volunteers will recede as fast as they’ve risen, as happened with Florida and Mullen. Me, I’m hoping they won’t.

Big Orange Country has waited 20 years for a team like this. The Volunteers won 10 or more games eight times under Phillip Fulmer, whose tenure included five East titles, two SEC championships and the 1998 BCS trophy. The first four coaches after Fulmer – Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones and Jeremy Pruitt – never won 10 games, never took a division title.

Success can be a function of timing. Mark Richt coached only one game against Steve Spurrier’s Florida. Jim Donnan, Richt’s predecessor, coached 10 games against Spurrier and Fulmer, losing eight, at a time when each won a national championship. Smart has won so much that East programs have operated in a state of envy, which leads to flux, which only made it easier for Georgia to keep winning.

Pruitt – who’d been the defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama – was a hire Tennessee shouldn’t have made. But the Vols had soured on Butch Jones, whose 2016 team beat Florida and Georgia (the latter on Jauan Jennings’ catch as time expired) but couldn’t win the East. Having fired Jones in 2017, Tennessee couldn’t fill the vacancy, which yielded a second vacancy.

AD John Currie reached agreement with Ohio State assistant Greg Schiano. A social media backlash undid the deal. Currie flew west to meet with Washington State coach Mike Leach but was ordered by Tennessee’s chancellor not to offer Leach the job and to return to Knoxville ASAP. Currie complied and was fired.

Into the mix stepped Fulmer, still seething over being pushed aside in 2008. The former coach became the new AD. He hired Pruitt, whose petulance made him a terrible fit for a fishbowl job like Tennessee’s. He made it through three seasons, his teams going 16-19, before an internal investigation found evidence of recruiting malfeasance. He was fired for cause. Fulmer was likewise swept aside.

Tennessee hired Danny White, who’d been AD at UCF. A week later, White hired Josh Heupel, the coach he’d hired to follow Scott Frost at UCF. Heupel’s time in Orlando saw his team go from 12-1 to 10-3 to 6-4. His first season in Knoxville saw the Vols go 7-6, losing big to Florida, Alabama and Georgia. He then lost the Music City Bowl to Purdue.

The 2022 Vols were picked at SEC Media Days to finish third in the East, between Kentucky and Florida, way behind Georgia. They needed overtime to beat Pitt on Sept. 10. Then, in rapid succession, they beat Florida, then LSU, then Alabama, scoring an aggregate 130 points. From “also receiving votes” in the preseason AP poll, Tennessee has risen to No. 2 in the land. Now it plays No. 1.

This could be the beginning of a beautiful enmity. That wouldn’t be an awful thing. Georgia’s biggest rival has become Alabama, which isn’t on the schedule every year. (Though they met twice last season.) Bulldog Nation had ceased rejoicing when their team won the East. There’ll be rejoicing if Georgia wins Saturday. There might even be some property destroyed.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and collated by yours truly, available to all who register on 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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