Each week, the two sports editors and football beat writers at The Daily Beacon, Josh Lane and Ethan Stone, give their keys and predictions to Tennessee’s upcoming football matchup.
This week, the Vols host No. 1 Georgia.
1. Third down defense
It’s been the biggest problem for the Vols’ defense since they played Florida way back in September. They have actually held opponents to a good enough mark on first and second down, but when opponents get to third down, the Vols simply can not get off the field.
Since the Vols’ loss to Florida, opponents are converting on third down 58.7% of the time. That number is higher than Alabama’s season mark of 57.9%, which leads the country. Tennessee’s last three games against Ole Miss (11-for-21), Alabama (15-for-20) and Kentucky (12-for-17) were particularly atrocious on third down.
Like last week with Kentucky’s Will Levis, the Vols are facing another average quarterback. Georgia could run out Stetson Bennett or JT Daniels, both of whom are solid, but not spectacular quarterbacks. It’s worth watching if Tennessee can stop either of them on third down, especially on the ground.
2. Make it an offensive shootout
Speaking of Georgia quarterbacks, the Georgia offense has not been an offense worthy of its No. 1 ranking so far. That great defense we keep talking about has really carried the Bulldogs to a 9-0 record.
The Bulldogs are averaging 38.44 points per game — just slightly ahead of Tennessee's 38.22 mark — but a decent amount of their production has been on account of their 3 defense scores, which leads the SEC.
Looking at just offensive production, Tennessee actually out gains Georgia on average, 457.7 to 430.0, and in total first downs 210 to 200. Tennessee’s quarterback Hendon Hooker has more passing touchdowns (21) than both Bennett and Daniels combined (20).
Tennessee needs to take defense out of the game. Of course, that’s much easier said than done, especially given the group the Vols are facing. But if they can, they might have a small chance at an upset. Georgia’s offense just isn’t built to keep up with Josh Heupel’s lightning fast pace.
1. Protect Hendon Hooker
Georgia may have the best defense the game has seen in a decent while. The most any team has scored on the Bulldogs this year is 13, which is pretty shocking to put into perspective.
As I’ll talk about in my next key, most of that talent lines up in the front seven. The Bulldogs are second in sacks in the SEC and would be higher in that category if teams could simply stay on the field against them. Georgia has only allowed 119 first downs this season compared to Tennessee’s 210 allowed first downs.
All that to say — the Vols offense will not be able to work with players such as Jordan Davis constantly pressuring Hooker. The Bulldogs secondary is not as stout as their front seven, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Tennessee should take deep shots too often. Understand that Georgia wants Hooker in the pocket as long as possible and run some plays that can adhere to his strengths — roll him out, quick passes, etc.
2. Take Georgia’s D-line out of the game
This is absolutely easier said than done, I confess. No head coach in the nation has been able to do it yet, but no head coach in the nation besides perhaps Lane Kiffin over at Ole Miss has the offensive firepower Josh Heupel and the Tennessee Vols do.
This has the potential to be a scary game for Georgia. The Bulldogs haven’t faced an offensive team that moves like Tennessee does and scheming up plays that expose their secondary with respect to their dominant pass rush can prove detrimental in the end for the No. 1 team in the country.
Running the ball is where it gets really tricky against the Bulldogs, and in my opinion it would be in Tennessee’s best interest to get Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small involved in other ways on the field rather than continue running directly into the second best rushing defense in the country over and over. This game is going to have to be won by the arm of Hendon Hooker.
If it was easy everyone would do it.
Spread: Georgia -20.0
For some reason, this game has gotten a decent amount of hype as a trap game for Georgia. The Bulldogs are facing an incredibly fast offense in a tough environment to be the road team. The making of a potential upset, right?
Not quite. Georgia’s defense is just too good. If Tennessee can somehow make the game into a shootout, like last week in Kentucky, then the narrative might change. But I don’t see that happening.
Tennessee will have a fast start, but with all the elite talent Georgia has on defense — particularly on the front seven — in the end this game will turn into just another classic Georgia-Tennessee beatdown.
Georgia 42, Tennessee 14
I’ve said for a while that if Georgia is going to lose a game this year in the regular season, the Vols are going to be the ones to do it. I’m not sure even Heupel’s offense has what it takes, but matching fire (a great defense) with fire (a great offense) may be the only way to get it done.
In the end, the Bulldogs are still the No. 1 team in the country. The Vols surpass 20 in a close game, but ultimately fall to 5-5.
Georgia 35, Tennessee 21