Tennessee is coming off of an embarrassing blowout loss on the road to Missouri last weekend. Now they turn around and welcome No. 1 Georgia to town. It’s late in the year, injuries are piling up, and Tennessee is a double-digit underdog. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are absolutely rolling — do the Vols even have a chance?
Anytime Tennessee plays in Neyland, they have a chance. Here are six keys to the Volunteers pulling off the upset.
It’s cliche, I know, but this is probably the most important ingredient to pulling the upset. Tennessee can’t afford to let Georgia play downhill with a lead. That’s where the avalanche begins for anyone playing the Bulldogs — just ask Kentucky or Ole Miss.
Tennessee also isn’t built to play from behind. The passing game simply hasn’t been consistent enough this year for Josh Heupel’s team, and playing one-dimensional football won’t work against this team.
Tennessee fell behind against Florida and Missouri this year and never really sniffed getting back into the game. If you can’t come back against those teams, you won’t come back against Georgia.
Maybe Heupel has some new wrinkles to throw at the Bulldogs early, but not falling into a two-score hole early is an absolute must.
Building off of that last point, if you start fast, 101,915 fans will be revved up and ready to make a big difference. Tennessee hasn’t lost in Neyland in two years for a reason — the place is back to being what it once was. The crowd certainly made a difference against South Carolina and Texas A&M, and it likely will once again on Saturday.
“The setup of the stadium is unique,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said of Neyland Stadium this week. “It’s really vertical. It feels like (the fans are) right on top of you. It’s not as leaned back as a stadium. It’s right there on you, a lot of fans very passionate fans. And that makes it tough.”
“I expect it to be as electric an atmosphere as we’ve ever had there,” Heupel said this week. “Which is as good as there is in college football.”
You’ve got an early lead, the crowd is roaring, now Tim Banks needs to do what he does. His defensive units can tend to run hot or cold, but he’s never going to shy away from being aggressive. Now armed with a handful of athletic pass rushers, Banks’ unit has taken another step forward this year.
Georgia offers a unique challenge. A true pro-style attack, Carson Beck has really come on as of late, taking advantage of Georgia’s ground game as things open up through the air. The Bulldogs actually rank sixth nationally in passing yards per game, while checking in at 38th on the ground.
They’re anchored by an offensive line that flat out does not give up sacks. They average less than one sack surrendered per game. Tennessee averages 3.3 sacks per game. Getting a few negative plays would go a long way here.
However, after last week’s performance against Missouri, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Georgia come out and look to keep things on the ground to start. We’ve seen the Tennessee front seven show up in big ways this year, but they’ve also had their moments where they’ve vanished. They’ll need their best performance of the season on Saturday.
Linebacker Rotation Play
No Keenan Pili, no Arion Carter — Tennessee’s linebacker depth his hurting right now. Elijah Herring, Jeremiah Telander and Kalib Perry are figuring things out on the fly behind Aaron Beasley, which is not a great place to be with Georgia coming to town. You saw those issue pop up last week against Cody Schrader and Missouri. Tennessee flat out has to have a better effort in this area this week.
Josh Heupel said as much on Thursday.
“Well, every experience you get in practice and during the course of a ballgame throughout the season makes you what you’re gonna become,” Heupel said. “Those guys will have to play well in this one. They’ve had a good week of preparation. They’ve grown throughout the course of the season. They need to step up and play well.”
Most people think of Squirrel white as a deep threat. While he certainly is that, he’s been used as more of a chess piece this year with Tennessee struggling to hit the deep ball. While we all thought he’d play a vertical game this year, White has been effective as more of a horizontal, screen/pop pass piece. He might be the best athlete on this offense, and he needs 8-12 touches in this one.
Squirrel only got four touches last week, and the Tennessee offense struggled. Against this Georgia front, it makes sense to get out to the perimeter quickly and keep them guessing. Mix in a shot down the field or two and see if you can land one.
Let Joe Run
Playing from behind, Milton led Tennessee in carries last week at Missouri with ten. We saw the staff really start to unleash his rushing ability against Alabama, where they opened the game with multiple designed rushes. Tennessee’s rushing attack is stout as is, but getting Milton going can take it to a different level. Especially going up against a front like Georgia’s, some misdirection or read option looks could be useful.
Keeping Georgia off-balance and guessing will be a key. Josh Heupel needs to show some new wrinkles on Saturday.
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.