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The Case for Georgia being the Vols’ Most Critical Game of the 2016 Season

The Bulldogs’ schedule leaves little margin of error for the Vols

Georgia v Tennessee Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Yesterday, Will mentioned in passing while addressing another topic that the Tennessee-Florida game was the unquestioned most important game of the Vols' season. That's right, from a certain perspective, but I believe the Tennessee-Georgia game may actually be more critical to the goal of getting to Atlanta to play in the SEC Championship Game.

If we're assuming the Vols finish the regular season 10-2 overall and 6-2 in the conference, then it's that second loss I'm most concerned about. More precisely, I'm concerned about the SEC East opponent that might give it to us.

Assuming no surprises in the first three weeks of the season, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia will all head into Week Four with an overall record of 3-0. Florida and Georgia will each have an SEC record of 1-0, and the Vols will have yet to play a conference game.

Week Four then, could shape up to be a Big Orange Party, assuming the Vols actually beat the Gators like they should. Not only would a victory exorcise the demons, and not only would it give the Vols a head-to-head advantage over the Gators in the SEC race, but Georgia plays Ole Miss that day as well and is likely to lose. So when the dust settles on Week Four, we could be looking at both Florida and Georgia with an SEC loss, and the Vols grinning from the driver's seat.

But the next week, Tennessee travels to Georgia, and the outcome of that game sets in motion two very different scenarios. First the happy one: Tennessee wins, owns tiebreakers over its two main rivals in the SEC East, and likely has a two-game cushion the rest of the way.

The other scenario, though, is not especially unhappy, but terribly frustrating. If Tennessee loses to Georgia, the Bulldogs will have the head-to-head advantage over Tennessee, and all three of Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee will have one SEC loss, assuming Florida beats Vandy that week. That may not seem like much of a problem with so much of the season still to go, but if you look at the rest of the schedule, you’ll soon realize that you'll be hoping against hope every week the rest of the way that Georgia loses to someone they should beat. Been there, done that, would rather have the steering wheel, thank you very much.

The remainder of Georgia's SEC schedule is this: @South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Florida, @Kentucky, and Auburn. How certain are you that there's another loss for the Bulldogs in that list? Florida and Auburn are "maybes" at best.

And the Vols' most probable best-case scenario the rest of the way includes a loss to Alabama, so even if Georgia stumbles against one of Florida and Auburn and both the Vols and Bulldogs finish with two losses each, the barkers still have the head-to-head over the Vols.

What about Florida? The rest of Florida's schedule after Week Five looks like this: LSU, Missouri, Georgia, @Arkansas, and South Carolina. LSU is as likely of a loss for the Gators as the Tide is for the Vols, so that's already two for the Gators. Georgia and Arkansas are also probable losses, according to preseason predictions. So if the Vols beat Florida, they'll probably have 3-4 losses and won't trigger a rock-paper-scissors three-way tie with Tennessee and Georgia. And if they do beat the Vols with another dose of hoodoo, there's still a good chance that they'll finish with more losses (three) than will Tennessee (two).

Not so with Georgia, however. If the Bulldogs get the head-to-head over the Vols, I see no real way for Tennessee to catch them except by (1) running the table the rest of the way (which includes beating Alabama), and (2) hoping Georgia falls not only to Ole Miss but also to Auburn. Or Florida, but if Florida beats both Tennessee and Georgia, then that means we're also probably wrong about Florida's chances the rest of the way. Georgia could lose three, I guess, and if we finish with just two, that also works, but that begins to raise the eyebrows.

The scenario trees get really messy after Week Five, but the Vols can make everything easy by just beating the Georgia Bulldogs on October 2. A loss to the Gators the week before would be seriously detrimental to my mental health, but if the prize is a trip to Atlanta, the team can recover from that easier than it can from a loss to the Bulldogs just due to the two opponents’ respective schedules the rest of the way.

But again, let’s just beat them all and drive happy all the way home.

Here's a week-by-week preseason prediction of the SEC East race, assuming the Vols beat Florida and lose to Georgia.

Week 1

  • Tennessee - Beats Appy State
  • Florida - Beats UMass
  • Georgia - Struggles with but beats UNC

Standings after Week 1

Team Conference Overall
Florida 0-0 1-0
Georgia 0-0 1-0
Tennessee 0-0 1-0

Week 2

  • Tennessee - Beats Virginia Tech
  • Florida - Beats Kentucky
  • Georgia - Beats Nicholls St.

Standings after Week 2

Team Conference Overall
Florida 1-0 2-0
Georgia 0-0 2-0
Tennessee 0-0 2-0

Week 3

  • Tennessee - Beats Ohio
  • Florida - Beats North Texas
  • Georgia - Beats Missouri

Standings after Week 3

Team Conference Overall
Florida 1-0 3-0
Georgia 1-0 3-0
Tennessee 0-0 3-0

Week 4

  • Tennessee - Beats Florida
  • Florida - Loses to Tennessee
  • Georgia - Loses to Ole Miss

Standings after Week 4

Team Conference Overall
Tennessee 1-0 4-0
Florida 1-1 3-1
Georgia 1-1 3-1

Week 5

  • Tennessee - Loses to Georgia
  • Florida - Beats Vandy
  • Georgia - Beats Tennessee

Standings after Week 5

Team Conference Overall
Florida 2-1 4-1
Georgia 2-1 4-1
Tennessee 1-1 4-1

Week 6

  • Tennessee - Beats Texas A&M
  • Florida - Loses to LSU
  • Georgia - Beats South Carolina

Standings after Week 6

Team Conference Overall
Georgia 3-1 5-1
Tennessee 2-1 5-1
Florida 2-2 4-2

Week 7

  • Tennessee - Loses to Alabama
  • Florida - Beats Missouri
  • Georgia - Beats Vanderbilt

Standings after Week 7

Team Conference Overall
Georgia 4-1 6-1
Florida 3-2 5-2
Tennessee 2-2 5-2

Week 8

  • Tennessee - Bye
  • Florida - Bye
  • Georgia - Bye

Standings after Week 8

Team Conference Overall
Florida 3-2 5-2
Georgia 4-1 6-1
Tennessee 2-2 5-2

Week 9

  • Tennessee - Beats South Carolina
  • Florida - Loses to Georgia
  • Georgia - Beats Florida

Standings after Week 9

Team Conference Overall
Georgia 5-1 7-1
Tennessee 3-2 6-2
Florida 3-3 5-3

Week 10

  • Tennessee - Beats Tennessee Tech
  • Florida - Loses to Arkansas
  • Georgia - Beats Kentucky

Standings after Week 10

Team Conference Overall
Georgia 6-1 8-1
Tennessee 3-2 7-2
Florida 3-4 5-4

Week 11

  • Tennessee - Beats Kentucky
  • Florida - Beats South Carolina
  • Georgia - Beats Auburn

Standings after Week 11

Team Conference Overall
Georgia 7-1 9-1
Tennessee 4-2 8-2
Florida 4-4 6-4

Week 12

  • Tennessee - Beats Missouri
  • Florida - Beats Presbyterian
  • Georgia - Beats Louisiana-Lafayette

Standings after Week 12

Team Conference Overall
Georgia 7-1 10-1
Tennessee 5-2 9-2
Florida 4-4 7-4

Week 13

  • Tennessee - Beats Vanderbilt
  • Florida - Loses to Florida State
  • Georgia - Beats Georgia Tech

Standings after Week 13

Team Conference Overall
Georgia 7-1 11-1
Tennessee 6-2 10-2
Florida 4-4 7-5