Tennessee’s progress isn’t lost on Kirby Smart. From a team that was in the basement of the SEC East for the past few years, now to a team ranked inside of the top 15 — the Volunteers might just be ready to have something to say about the division.
Georgia’s fifth-year head coach talked about the Volunteers on Wednesday, ahead of his top 15 showdown with his former colleague Jeremy Pruitt. Smart noted Tennessee’s obvious improvements, particularly in size and experience.
“This is our biggest test. I don’t think we’ve played someone as good as these guys, especially the up-front guys, an experienced quarterback,” Smart said on the SEC teleconference Wednesday. “They really have experienced wideouts for the most part because Brandon Johnson seems like he’s been there forever. Palmer is a great wideout. Velus has played all over the place so they have good players, young wideouts. So it’s going to be the biggest test for us.”
Pruitt has spent the better part of the last three years getting Tennessee’s talent back up to par. Part of that was simply getting the Volunteers big enough to compete for the SEC once again, an approach that contrasts what Butch Jones tried to do in his time in Knoxville.
Tennessee now stars five blue-chippers on the offensive line, and looks every bit of the part on the defensive front. It’s no coincidence that the Vols started winning again once those obvious issues were fixed.
“The line of scrimmage is probably where it sticks out most,” Smart continued. “Their offensive line is big, physical. They’ve got good players, good experience. They’ve recruited well there and there’s the defensive line. That’s where you can get beat before the game starts in the SEC, it you don’t have enough guys across the line of scrimmage. I think they do. I think they do a good job on both sides of the ball as far as line of scrimmage play.”
Part of that experience up front on the offensive line comes from Cade Mays, a player who started games for Georgia as recently as January. Mays transferred out of Georgia and landed back home at Tennessee this offseason. His second start will come against his former team on Saturday afternoon.
Mays assisted the Tennessee rushing attack last weekend against Missouri, pushing the Volunteers to over 230 yards rushing. That’s a strategy that Jeremy Pruitt would love to replicate, but they’ll have to do it against one of the best defensive fronts in the nation.
In what could be a nasty, windy day in Athens, the best trench game might just come out on top. For the first time in a long time, Tennessee has at least a chance to win a heavyweight fight like that.