This game is more about Tennessee than Georgia. If the Volunteers play at/near capacity, they’ll win. This is a departure from Georgia’s recent past, where we always figured — with exceptions involving Alabama and, briefly, South Carolina — that the Bulldogs would prevail if they didn’t mess up. (They messed up often enough that Mark Richt will be coaching in Atlanta this weekend, not Athens.)
Georgia is no longer the SEC East’s most talented team. It could not have done to Florida what Tennessee did in the second half last Saturday. Heck, the Bulldogs couldn’t do anything like that to Nicholls State. With Nick Chubb’s status in question, they could be lessened even more. (Then again, Tennessee will be without cornerback Cameron Sutton of Jonesboro.)
For the first three games, that was the story of Georgia in Year 1 under new management: The Bulldogs didn’t blow anybody away — they won three games by a total of 12 points; after what happened in Oxford, they’ve been outscored by 19 this season — but didn’t flail so wildly that it mattered. They looked like a well-coached team, which is something we hadn’t always been able to say.
All the coaching in the world wouldn’t have overridden Ole Miss’ manpower superiority. The Rebels would have had to play less than their best to render that a close game. Ergo, 31-0 at the half, 45-0 in the third quarter. The Tennessee game will not be so lopsided.
The Vols’ two best wins under Butch Jones — against Georgia last year and Florida last week — have come at Neyland Stadium. They’ve beaten nobody of note on the road. Even in those two orange-letter home victories, they trailed by 21 points. They can be maddeningly slow to start. If you’re slow to start on the road against a good (but not great) team, you can fall behind and not catch up.
Having had so few signature wins, Jones’ Vols have no real history of Handling Prosperity. After beating Georgia last October, they had a week off; then they played pretty well but lost to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The epic rally against Florida — 38 consecutive points! — could have instilled true belief in a team that hadn’t impressed anyone in this season’s first three games. It could also have left that team fat and sassy.
The guess here, as it has been since June, is that Tennessee will win. But I don’t see this as the runaway that some Georgia fans are fearing. Tennessee in Athens isn’t as daunting as Ole Miss in Oxford. If Joshua Dobbs isn’t having a good day — and he doesn’t always — the Vols aren’t nearly as good as the Rebels. I think weight of numbers will ultimately hold sway, but I’d be surprised if this isn’t a one-touchdown game.
Should Georgia be the team that finishes seven or so points in front, the East is there to be won. Tennessee would need the Bulldogs to lose — beyond Saturday, there are no probable losses on Georgia’s schedule; I’m not sold on Florida or Auburn — while the Vols run the conference table, and their next two games are against Alabama and Texas A&M. We say again: This is not a vintage Georgia team, but if it wins Saturday it will be in pole position to play for the SEC title.