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Josh Heupel, Kirby Smart preview Tennessee-Georgia

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tennessee improved to 5-4 on the season last week, winning a big one on the road against Kentucky. It was Josh Heupel’s first ranked win at Tennessee as his Volunteers continue to impress in his first season. Now they have a date with the No. 1 team in America.

The Georgia Bulldogs will cap off a tough four game stretch for Tennessee. Kirby Smart’s program now has a firm hold on the SEC East throne for the foreseeable future, as Smart continues to recruit at a ridiculous level. All of that talent is really showing up on the field, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Georgia has given up just a handful of touchdowns on the year and currently rank No. 2 nationally in total defense. 13 points is the most the Bulldogs have allowed this season, coming twice against Kentucky and South Carolina.

Josh Heupel has done incredible work with the Tennessee offense this year, but he knows the Vols have a tough road ahead on Saturday afternoon.

“It starts with the personnel,” Heupel said. “They’re big, long, physical, athletic. They play with speed. They do a great job of retracing on perimeter screens. You see that show up. When you think you’ve got space, it closes down pretty quick, and I don’t care if that’s in the core or out on the perimeter.”

Elite talent is one thing, but elite depth is another. Georgia has both. The Bulldogs are able to stay fresh and rotate bodies without much trade-off. We’ve seen Tennessee beaten in the area before — think back to the Alabama fourth quarter. They’ll be dealing with the same issues against Georgia.

“They’re able to rotate a lot of guys, too,” Heupel continued. “The depth of their football team is a big part of their success, being able to play guys essentially almost in 50% of the ball game and rotate through.”

Offensively, Stetson Bennett has taken over under center for JT Daniels. Smart has gone with the hot hand approach, keeping Bennett in the lineup even after Daniels returned from injury.

Georgia ranks 44th in total offense, utilizing a balanced attack. Just as they are defensively, the Bulldogs aren’t short on options to move the football. Running backs Zamir White and James Cook form a nice duo in the backfield, while Georgia spreads the ball around to several different options in the passing attack.

“It starts, for me, for them up front,” Heupel said of Georgia’s offense. “Physical tight ends. Physical offensive line. Really good depth and athleticism and physicality from the running back position. Then their tight ends being able to be a big part of the passing game and play-action pass. Good perimeter players, too, and the quarterback is playing super-efficient. You’ve got to defend it all. It’s not just one thing. You’ve got to be able to hammer the run game, though, and try to get them off schedule and get off the field on third down.”

Tight end Brock Bowers actually leads the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Identifying where he’s at and matching up with him will be a key for Tim Banks this weekend. Another key will be containing Stetson Bennett, who has hurt Tennessee before. Running quarterbacks have been an issue for the Tennessee defense all season long, and I’d expect Bennett’s legs to play a role in the Georgia offense on Saturday.

The Vols went 3-2 in ‘swing games’ this year, and they’re expected to handle South Alabama and Vanderbilt to close the year. They’re on track for a 7-5 season, beating just about everyone’s projections for the year. This is a spot with virtually no expectations, and Tennessee has nothing to lose. The Vols will come out swinging, hoping their different approach will be enough to hang in with the Bulldogs. They enter this weekend as 20 point underdogs, per DraftKings Sportsbook. It’s a spot where Tennessee will be outmanned, but we’ve seen this offense surprise us before. Will the up-tempo, spread attack make up for a talent gap? It certainly could. Can that hold for four quarters? That will be Tennessee’s challenge.

“They’re fast and you don’t always get lined up properly,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said of Tennessee’s new attack. “It’s very unique, guys. You don’t face it every day. They’ve done a tremendous job through tempo of being explosive.

“They’re a tremendous run-game team. They run the ball a crazy number of average runs per game. They wear you down, they wear you down, they wear you down. They’ve got good backs, a physical o-line, they’re heavy. It’s not an air raid team, guys. It’s a shot team and a pound you team.”

Tennessee and Georgia are set for a 3:30 p.m. CBS kickoff on Saturday afternoon.

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