A popular argument in the buildup to the 2015 encounter between the Vols and Dawgs is some form of, "Tennessee has almost beaten Georgia three years in a row and the Vols are way better this year!" I'm a fan of this argument and support it regularly. And both looking back and looking forward in this series, the gap between these two teams is smaller than it often gets credit for.
Georgia, like the rest of the SEC's upper echelon, still has the Vols at a talent disadvantage on paper. While Tennessee has turned in a pair of consensus Top 7 classes the last two years to finish ahead of Georgia, the Dawgs have finished between 6th and 12th in the 247 Composite in each of the last four years. Tennessee's upperclassmen, few and far between already, still come from classes ranked 20th in 2012 and 24th in 2013.
The Vols have played four straight one possession contests with the Dawgs, with the last three being especially competitive to the cold, bitter end. Tennessee has lost those three games by a combined 13 points and been outgained the last two years by only a combined 65 yards. But the most important difference between Tennessee and Georgia the last three years has been the tried and true champion of difference makers: turnovers.
In the last three years, Tennessee has turned the ball over seven times against Georgia. The Dawgs have been generous as well, giving it away five times. But nobody has done heartbreak in the final minutes as well as the Vols against Georgia.
Tennessee's seven turnovers in the last three Georgia games have included a first half Tyler Bray interception in 2012, and the botched Nathan Peterman/Marlin Lane exchange in the third quarter last year. The other five have all come in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter or in overtime. And all came on a drive that could have tied the score or given the Vols the lead.
Bray turned the ball over on each of UT's final three drives in 2012, including an interception and a fumble inside the Georgia 40 before a hail mary-esque pick in the final seconds. In 2013 Tennessee was turnover free in regulation before coming just inches short on Pig Howard's end zone fumble in overtime. And last year, 99 yards from the lead with 4:30 to play, Justin Worley and Jalen Hurd botched an exchange to give Georgia a ten point lead.
It's not that Georgia has been outright lucky to beat Tennessee; the Dawgs have won 30 games in the last three years for a reason. But Tennessee teams already playing behind the eight ball in talent have come painfully close to getting the job done against the Dawgs three years in a row before a cruel and unusual string of late game turnovers.
So perhaps in this year's contest with the presumptive SEC East favorites coming to Knoxville, the Vols don't need to be lucky or to catch Georgia woozy after Alabama. Maybe what Tennessee needs to do as it continues to progress under Butch Jones is stop shooting itself in the foot. The difference between another close loss and the driver's seat for Atlanta could easily be growing from a team that gives it away at the end to a team that takes advantage in the final minutes.