The SEC on CBS Game of the Week will have the undivided attention of college football fans around the nation when No. 3 Georgia hosts No. 1 Tennessee on Saturday in a battle of two SEC East foes looking to stay undefeated on the season. Not only does this massive showdown carry divisional implications within the toughest conference in the country, but there are obvious College Football Playoff implications as well based on the first release of the rankings earlier this week.
The Bulldogs held off rival Florida last weekend 42-20, which included a fourth-quarter surge after the Gators stormed back in the third quarter. Tight end Brock Bowers continued his stellar season, catching five passes for 154 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, the Volunteers dispatched of Kentucky 44-6 last Saturday on Rocky Top in a game that was never in doubt. Quarterback Hendon Hookerone of the top candidates for the Heisman Trophy, threw for 245 yards, passed for three touchdowns and scored one on the ground.
So what will happen on Saturday in Athens, Georgia, as these two SEC titans clash? Let’s break down the game and make a pick.
How to watch Georgia vs. Tennessee live
Georgia vs. Tennessee: Need to know
What does Nolan Smith’s loss mean?: Georgia received terrible news this week when it was announced that star linebacker Nolan Smith’s season is over after in the win over Florida. The senior had seven tackles for loss and three sacks in eight games this season prior to the injury. The timing couldn’t be worse for the Bulldogs.
The Volunteers offense isn’t just one of the most dynamic units in the country, but it operates at warp speed. The veteran presence that Smith brought to the defense — including his familiarity with the defensive scheme — is irreplaceable. Coach Kirby Smart addressed possible replacements on Monday.
“Well, Robert [Beal] played,” he said in his press conference. “He played a little more number of snaps once Nolan was injured. Chaz [Chambliss] did a nice job coming in. It was great to get him back. Didn’t know that he would have to play that much in that role. His hamstring has still been bothering him. It bothered him a little bit the other night after the game. So it’s one of those that we’re going to see how he does today and moves around. Looking to get Marvin [Jones]all those guys going. So nobody really played more because it was just Chaz and Robert, really.”
Tennessee’s sneaky strength: The Volunteers rank second in the SEC in rushing defense (92.88 yards per game) and yards per play (2.90), which probably comes as a surprise to people who haven’t sat down and studied the Vols. They are tied for the SEC lead in fewest rushing plays of 20 or more yards allowed (3), and the fact that they don’t give up explosive plays on the ground is a big asset against the Bulldogs.
Georgia likes to establish the run and work off of play action. That’s been its identity throughout Smart’s tenure there, and is still true even though Bennett has taken over more control of the offense this year. If Tennessee can have the same kind of success vs. Kenny McIntosh, Daijun Edwards, Branson Robinson and the rest of the talented Bulldogs running back room, it’ll have a chance to spring the upset.
Styles make fights: If Tennessee is allowed to play its brand of football, it’s going to beat any opponent that it plays save for, perhaps, a hypothetical matchup with Ohio State. Smart knows just how dangerous Josh Heupel’s offense can be.
“They go really fast,” Smart said. “They get a lot of at-bats in terms of possessions, and they do start fast. I think our team has done a really good job of growing and getting better throughout this year. And each week, including the off-week, it’s, like, I see marked improvement. I really want to continue to do that. We’re trending in the right direction in terms of getting better both offensively and defensively.”
Knowing that, it’s on Bennett to make sure that this game doesn’t turn into a track meet. That means staying on schedule, avoiding negative plays, getting to third-and-short situations and converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. Generally speaking, time of possession isn’t as important in this day and age as it used to be before the rise of offensive creativity. It matters in this one, though. Georgia has to keep Hooker and the rest of the Vols offense on the sideline and not waste opportunities.
Georgia vs. Tennessee prediction, picks
Featured Game | Georgia Bulldogs vs. Tennessee Volunteers
I’ll go out on a limb and take Tennessee to win straight up. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll grab those points, too, but this Tennessee offense is too good to be stopped even by a defense as talented and deep as Georgia’s. The Vols will operate at warp speed, expose Smith’s absence while using Hooker and running backs Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright on the ground to set up the chunk plays over the top. Bennett won’t be able to keep up and the Vols will notch their biggest win in decades. Prediction: Tennessee +8.5
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