When the schedule first came out for the 2023 season, you immediate scrolled down to the bottom of the schedule and circled this one. Georgia, the back to back national champs, rolling into Neyland Stadium in late November with everything on the line. Unfortunately, Tennessee didn’t hold up their end of the deal.
Still, the Volunteers have a chance to play spoiler on Saturday afternoon. Tennessee is coming off of their worst performance of their season on the road at Missouri, but by now you know — they’re a different animal at home. We’ll see if Neyland can make a difference this weekend.
Kirby Smart is 2-0 against Josh Heupel since Heupel arrived in 2021. Tennessee started fast against the Bulldogs in 2021, but couldn’t put a full game together. Smart’s group got the better of the Vols last year in a showdown for the SEC East. He now faces a very different looking Tennessee team this year.
“We’ve been in prep for, I guess, two days, really three days now getting ready, and it’s always a really hard prep for these guys,” Smart said on the SEC teleconference on Wednesday. “They test you in a lot of ways. Very different style of offense we have to play against, and they’ve improved immensely on defense and are playing with a really tough attitude and demeanor and striking up front. So it’ll be a great challenge for us as we go into Knoxville.”
That defense has really shown up at home in particular, with Tennessee holding every opponent so far under 20 points. Their issues have come on the road, really dating back to last season.
Tim Banks’ unit will be tasked with slowing down one of the top offenses in college football on Saturday. Georgia ranks fifth in the nation in total offense, putting up over 500 yards per game.
“Well, I think the improvement with Tennessee’s defense is they have more experienced players in their system,” Smart said. “They’ve got a lot of players, to me, that have been playing for two, three, four years, and those guys are very experienced. A lot of playing defense is the experiences you’ve had, and you’ve played in these big moments. And they have talented players. They have more size across the defensive line.
“They play with great pad level and strike, so they’ve improved immensely in terms of how aggressive they are. They’ve got a great pass rusher (James Pearce Jr.) that’s a (sophomore) that’s come on and been a big impact. So you just see it all over the tape, and they’re playing at a high level.”
Perhaps the secret to the defensive splits is as simple at playing inside of Neyland Stadium. Tennessee’s last loss at home came two years ago to these same Bulldogs. ‘Neyland loud’ has been a real thing, and it’s certainly made a big difference over the past two seasons.
“Well, it’s a tough environment when you go on the road in the SEC,” Smart said. “It’s never easy. Neyland presents one of the toughest ones there is in the country in terms of environment and noise.”
Smart explained how Neyland is unique, setting it apart from the rest of the SEC venues.
“The setup of the stadium is unique,” he continued. “It’s really vertical. It feels like they’re right on top of you. It’s not leaned back. It’s right there on you. A lot of fans — very passionate fans — and that makes it tough.”
Kickoff on Saturday is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.
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