ATHENS, Ga. — The College Football Playoff selection committee presented a challenge to the Georgia Bulldogs on Tuesday, ranking Tennessee No. 1 in its first top 25 of the season. It seemed justifiable at the time. It turned out to be a gift.
The reigning national champions, perhaps amused by the perceived threat from these freshly competitive Volunteers, reminded everyone who runs this sport. The path to the Southeastern Conference title and the Playoff still runs between the hedges here.
Georgia 27, Tennessee 13, was a rout disguised as a solid victory. The Vols weren’t ready for what hit them—not the Georgia talent or the Georgia toughness or the shattering noise unleashed by the Sanford Stadium crowd.
“What’s more deafening than deafening?” asked winning coach Kirby Smart, getting existential for a moment in trying to answer whether this was the loudest he’d ever heard this 92,746-seat edifice. Point being, there is a threshold at which you simply can’t hear, and then it doesn’t really matter. We hit that threshold repeatedly Saturday, with the scoreboard noise meter showing decibel levels up to at least 132 (exceeding the takeoff of a jet).
The atmosphere, combined with the quality of opponent, melted the nation’s No. 1 offense into a puddle of pre-snap penalties (seven) and failed protections of quarterback Hendon Hooker (six sacks). When the Tennessee offensive linemen weren’t jumping prematurely, they were moving too slowly at the snap because of the uproar.
“I knew our crowd would impact the game,” Smart said. “When you play on the road in the SEC, if you can’t account for that .2 seconds of get-off [at the snap], it changes the rush.”
Ultimately, Tennessee looked very much like what it is—a new arrival at the highest echelon going on the road against a been-there, done-that program. Some things you can’t prepare for. You have to go through them. And it can be painful.
“As a program you’ve got to understand what you got yourself into, terms of the atmosphere and emotion,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said.
The Vols got themselves into a hornet’s nest. They went home with the stings to show for it, while Georgia walks away with a 24-game regular-season winning streak.
“I’d say experience is very helpful,” said ‘Dogs quarterback Stetson Bennett, who outplayed Hooker in a matchup of geriatric college QBs (Bennett is 25, Hooker is 24). “It’s the unknown of big games, right? You don’t know what freaks you out, but something does. And now we have played on the big stages.”
Having seen pretty much everything college football can throw at a guy, Bennett knows not to waste energy on ancillary issues. For instance, he said he didn’t watch the CFP rankings show Tuesday night. He just waited for word to reach him about where Georgia was ranked (No. 3) and where Tennessee was. “Nothing matters until the last one,” he said, correctly.
Nobody should be surprised anymore by seeing the former walk-on QB playing very well in a big game—Bennett was brilliant in the Playoff last year, lighting up Michigan in the semifinals and leading a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Alabama for the natty. He did it again Saturday, throwing for an efficient 257 yards and two touchdowns and running for a third score. The Georgia offense became much more conservative in the second half when it started raining, but the game already was in hand then. It was 24–6 at halftime and perhaps could have been worse.
That’s because the ‘Dogs dominated the Vols’ powerful offense, reducing its fancy statistics to rubble. Tennessee produced 36 fewer points and 264 fewer yards than its season averages. This was the Vols’ fewest points in the two-season Heupel Era, as they failed to get their formidable combination of tempo and big plays flowing until it was far too late. A team that had connected on at least one 45-yard pass in all eight games didn’t complete anything longer than 28 yards against Georgia, and that blow-by pass to Jalin Hyatt came with 4:30 left in the contest. The Vols’ first and only touchdown was scored with 4:15 to play.
The Bulldogs’ secondary was very much up to the challenge of covering Tennessee’s talented receiving corps, winning a lot of one-on-one matchups out in space. Georgia was credited with three passes broken up, but it seemed like more. And there was an interception by star cornerback Kelee Ringo on a deep ball for Cedric Tillman in the end zone, reinforcing the reality that the Vols were not going to get loose downfield against the Dogs’ defensive backs.
Afterward, Smart said that Ringo texted him Sunday asking to cover Hyatt, who came in leading the nation in touchdowns with 14. Smart appreciated the desire, but informed Ringo that singling him up on Hyatt all day wasn’t part of the gameplan. Smart repeatedly praised his players for sublimating their egos to win as a team, and you got the feeling he was referring to Ringo in part. That might have been why the coach went running and clapping to bear-hug Ringo before Georgia exited the playing surface for the locker room at game’s end.
And don’t forget the third phase of the game, special teams. The most remarkable single play was turned in by Georgia freshman punter Brett Thorson, who blasted a 75-yard punt that somehow tracked the final 20 yards on the ground directly to the corner of the playing field, going out of bounds on the 1-yard line.
There was nothing Georgia didn’t do well, save two fumbles by backup running backs. This showcased the team’s completeness, and it showcased that Tennessee—while much improved—is not yet a complete team. The defense was exposed on three downfield shots by Bennett to open receivers, and Georgia also was able to run the ball effectively in the first half as it quickly took control and stymied the fast-starting Vols.
“They go for the knockout blow in the first round,” Smart said.
Unable to land one early, Tennessee wasn’t capable of executing under duress. Georgia kept making plays and the crowd kept getting louder, a red-and-black avalanche building on itself and burying another opponent.
We’ll see Tuesday how much a two-touchdown loss that was worse than two touchdowns costs the Vols in the CFP rankings. It will most likely drop them to the top of the one-loss pile, which is assuredly not out of the picture. And the Bulldogs will be No. 1 Tuesday.
Tennessee provided a fresh storyline heading into November, but there is no changing of the guard at the top of college football. Everything runs through Georgia, and the ‘Dogs aren’t interested in stepping aside for anyone just yet.