ATHENS — Georgia puts its perfect record on the line in a home game against its bitter rival from the north, Tennessee, with Bulldogs’ fans licking their chops.
Georgia opened as a 32 1/2-point favorite over the Vols in what had traditionally been a close game before the Bulldogs put a 41-0 beating on Tennessee in Knoxville last season.
It was the most lopsided defeat in Neyland Stadium history, and it serve notice that Kirby Smart’s 2017 Georgia team was dialed in en route to its SEC championship season.
The 2018 Bulldogs haven’t appeared quite as dominant to this point at the line of scrimmage, but Smart has said weekly it’s a work in progress with several young players stepping up.
Here are four things to watch in the Georgia-Tennessee game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday.
The Bulldogs could be down three starters at kickoff, depending on the recovery windows of inside linebacker Monty Rice (knee) and receiver Tyler Simmons (shoulder).
Rice has been hampered by a a sprained MCL, according to Smart, and was a game-day scratch at Missouri last Saturday.
Simmons suffered a shoulder injury at Missouri that Smart originally said would sideline him two to three weeks. Smart recanted on Monday, saying he had no timetable for the receiver’s return.
The offensive line depth will be tested for a fourth consecutive game after junior right guard Ben Cleveland suffered a broken left fibula that’s expected to sideline him into November.
Georgia left tackle Andrew Thomas has been in and out of the lineup with a sprained left ankle since the second half of the South Carolina game on Sept. 8. Thomas re-injured the ankle at Missouri but was back to practice on Monday.
Freshman cornerback Tyson Campbell suffered a shoulder subluxation at Missouri, but he also returned to practice on Monday and is expected back in the starting lineup.
Smart makes no secret the Georgia football template is all about winning at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football — something the Bulldogs struggled with at Missouri.
The Tigers’ projected first-round draft pick quarterback, Drew Lock, was held without a touchdown pass for the first time in more than a year.
But Missouri’s success running the ball in the red zone was alarming, and the Tigers gained 5 or more yards on 13 of 19 runs on first-and-10, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in those instances.
“We didn’t play the run game real good last week, and that’s what we pride ourselves on, and we gotta do a better job of attacking the run and play the run,” Smart said. “At the end of the day stopping the run is an attitude and a disposition you create within your team. And we didn’t have that.
“We didn’t stop the run very well against Missouri. I’ll be the first to admit that.”
Georgia’s secondary ranks among the best in the nation, with the Bulldogs allowing just three completed passes of 20 yards or more while intercepting four of their opponents’ 147 pass attempts.
The Bulldogs will be geared toward stopping the run against the Vols, so there could be more defensive backs challenged in man-to-man coverage.
Georgia ranks third nationally allowing just 7.98 yards per completion, a mark bettered only by Utah (7.54) and Washington (7.70).
Senior cornerback Deandre Baker has provided shutdown coverage for the Bulldogs, holding the SEC’s leading receiver, Missouri’s Emanuel Hall, without a catch in a 43-29 win at Missouri last Saturday.
Lock was held without a touchdown pass for the first time in more than a year and failed to complete a pass longer than 25 yards. He finished a pedestrian 23-of-48 passing for 221 yards with an interception and a lost fumble. Georgia linebacker D’Andre Walker forced the turnover on one of his two sacks in the game.
Tennessee’s first-year head coach is plenty familiar with Georgia football, having served as defensive coordinator for the Bulldogs in 2014 and 2015 under former coach Mark Richt.
Pruitt’s brief tenure in Athens is viewed as beneficial, but also divisive.
Stories leaked this summer of Pruitt displaying insubordinate behavior toward Richt, with former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and Bulldogs’ 2019 hall of fame candidate David Pollack questioning the hire.
Murray told Nashville radio station 102.5 FM that he didn’t think Pruitt was “the right guy to kind of be the CEO of a corporation,” and said “[Pruitt] wasn’t as respectful as I thought a defensive coordinator should be to a head coach. “
Pollack said on the SEC Network that he’d heard stories “that are true” of Pruitt being disrespectful toward Richt.