KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Josh Heupel knows what championship football looks like having quarterbacked Oklahoma’s 2000 national title team and coached against Georgia his first three seasons at Tennessee.
The Vols’ head coach saw his team drop a 38-10 decision on Saturday, their first loss in Neyland Stadium since the 2021 version of Georgia beat them 41-17 in Knoxville.
Last year, in a historic battle of No. 1 teams in Athens— UT then tops in the CFP, Georgia in the polls — the Bulldogs triumphed 27-13.
Heupel was essentially asked on Saturday how this Georgia team compares to the others?
“This team has continued to get better throughout the course of the season,” Heupel said. “I don’t know how many first-round draft picks they’ll have, (but) they’re still big, long athletic, physical, and play with great fundamentals and technique.
“To do what they’ve done, you have to be a good team.”
Heupel stubbornly continued to believe in his Tennessee team’s potential and took up for them.
“Not taking anything from them, they are a really good football team,” Heupel said. “Today was not our best football. I said it earlier, this game doesn’t care, there’s no asterisks … next man has to be up and gotta go play at a championship level.”
That’s what Georgia did with freshman linebacker C.J. Allen making his career start, Dillon Bell stepping up in place of injured receiver Ladd McConkey on the perimeter and the offensive line shifting when Tate Ratledge was knocked out of the game with an injured knee in the first quarter.
Heupel took note when asked how Tennessee looked to catch up to Smart’s program.
“We’ve still got to continue to take steps in what we’re doing as a program,” he said. “It’s our personnel, the depth of our program, to continue to climb the ranks inside this league.
“That’s a really good (Georgia) football team. What they’ve done over the last couple of years is special.”
Heupel complimented Smart’s team more than once, agreeing with the Georgia coach that third downs told the tale of the game.
The Bulldogs were 9 of 13 conversion on third downs while Tennessee was just 2 of 11.
Seven of those third down conversions came on third-and-7 or longer, illustrating just how effective offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and quarterback Carson Beck (24-30, 298, 3 TDs) really were.
“Two of 11, you’re not going to win,” Heupel said. “You look at their conversion rate, that’s how you win.
“Those plays, those conversions give you the ability to get to the next play, and they were able to do that, and we weren’t.”
The Tennessee head coach has said earlier in the week a key would be for the Vols to win one-on-one battles, and many assumed he meant on the perimeter with his receivers getting a great deal of man coverage.
But it was that, and more.
“I said going into it there’s gonna be one on one situations, (and) they made plays in those one on one situations,” Heupel said. “And that can be protection, that can be giving the quarterback time, that can be making plays out on the perimeter.
“End of the day, we didn’t do those things, know what I mean?”