ATHENS — Jeremy Pruitt made a promise when he took the Tennessee football head coaching job in December of 2017 that he would change the culture.
But whether the No. 14-ranked Vols are ready change the landscape in the SEC East Division remains to be seen, as a No. 3-ranked Georgia team stands in their path on Saturday.
Tennessee has won eight in a row and is looking for a breakthrough win that would vault the Big Orange back into the Top 10 for the first time since 2016.
It took a miraculous Hail Mary for the Vols to beat then-first-year coach Kirby Smart that day for an 11th straight win and a spot among the elite in the Top 10.
Georgia, of course, recovered with a national championship run in 2017 and is riding a current streak of 50 straight weeks ranked in the Top 10 and three consecutive SEC East Division titles.
So, just how real of a threat are these Vols in Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Sanford Stadium? Are they prepared for a game of this magnitude?
“Absolutely,” Pruitt said last Saturday after Tennessee dismantled Missouri 35-12. “They’ve got good players; they’ve got good coaches, but we do too.
“That’s why I came to UT, and that’s why these players came to Tennessee—to play in big games like this.”
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) October 6, 2020
If Tennessee’s blueprint for success looks and sounds familiar, it should.
Pruitt is a former SEC safety who groomed his skills coaching under Nick Saban at Alabama, with prior stops at Florida State and as an assistant at Georgia. Sound familiar?
“My vision for our football team is we want to be a big, fast, dominating, aggressive, relentless football team that nobody in the SEC wants to play,” Pruitt said at his introductory press conference on Dec. 7, 2017.
“It starts with dominating the line of scrimmage. It’s not a secret. If you want to be successful in this league, you have to be able to dominate up front.”
And who better than to build that sort of dominant front-line play on offense and balance than Jim Chaney — the same offensive coordinator Kirby Smart hired to help him jump-start the Bulldogs in 2016.
Chaney spent three years in Athens before Tennessee essentially doubled his salary to return to Knoxville.
Smart, disappointed with how Justin Fields’ time on offense turned out before the gifted QB transferred to Ohio State, did not match the offer.
The Vols do indeed have a dominant offensive front filled with three 5-star prospects, including a center from Alabama (Brandon Kennedy), a guard from the previous regime (Trey Smith) and a tackle from Georgia (Cade Mays).
The Bulldogs’ might have the best defensive front in college football, but they will be tested on Saturday.
“They’re very experienced in our league, kids who have played a lot of ball last year against us and have gotten better,” Smart said. “They’ve got a tremendous offensive line, probably one of the best in our league.”
The Tennessee defense, meanwhile, plays with the same ideology as Georgia’s: A stop-the-run-first mentality, tight man-to-man coverage and a mixture of schemes.
It’s hard not to appreciate an 8-game win streak at any level, but Tennessee’s must be qualified to a certain extent.
The Vols have not beaten any teams that were ranked during that streak. UT has defeated Missouri and South Carolina twice each, for four of those wins, along with Kentucky, Vanderbilt, UAB and Indiana.
“I think this is the ultimate litmus test, because we look at the 8-game win streak, and some have discounted it because of the teams they played,” SEC Network analyst and former Florida star Chris Doering told DawgNation.
“But I see an improved offensive line, and a defensive line that has improved. And I see linebacker Henry To’ To’ flying around, and they are strong at the corner position,” he said. “But we haven’t seen them tested like we’re going to see them tested against Georgia.”
Pruitt knows he was hired to beat the likes of UGA, Florida and Alabama — teams he is 0-6 against to this point.
Phillip Fulmer told him that he would ultimately be judged on those rivalry games — just like Fulmer was when he worked for legendary UT AD Doug Dickey.
Tennessee does, in fact, own a 33-game losing streak against Top 10 teams that dates back to a 2006 win over the Bulldogs in Athens.
To beat this version of Georgia football the Vols will need to get through a unit that leads the SEC in total defense, scoring defense, run defense and pass efficiency defense.
Jarrett Guarantano, the nation’s No. 1-ranked dual-threat QB coming out of high school, is the third-least pressured quarterback in the SEC at just 18.8 percent of his snaps.
It will take a sounds run game to keep Guarantano and the Vols on schedule and out of the sort of second- and third-and-long situations that enable Smart to turn loose a fierce pass rush.
Tennessee tailback Ty Chandler leads the SEC in rushing behind a star-studded line that has paved the way for 182.5 yards per game — second best in the league.
Tennessee and Georgia are border states, but the intensity of the rivalry has ebbed and flowed, even as the programs live with constant animosity between them.
The Vols make it a habit to recruit in Georgia, to the extent that former coach Phillip Fulmer often said they consider Atlanta part of Tennessee when it comes to football.
Indeed, Knoxville is three hours from Atlanta, and six hours from Memphis, so what difference does a state line really make?
The Vols’ 1998 national championship came with key players from Georgia dotting most every position meeting: Jamal Lewis at running back, Cosey Coleman at offensive guard, Deon Grant and Fred White at the safety spots and Steve Johnson at cornerback.
Of course, few will complain about Johnson flipping from Georgia to Tennessee on signing day, because Smart said Johnson’s decision is what led him to get a scholarship offer from the Bulldogs.
Oh yes, and Smart? 0-4 against Tennessee as a player.
The rivalry is real, and the Vols want to make it even more so with a win at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, to make it that much easier to get into Georgia living rooms.
Already, there are 25 former Georgia players on the Tennessee roster. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have just there players from the Volunteer State.
“Tennessee is much improved over the mess Jeremy Pruitt inherited after the 2017 season,” Veteran Vols’ reporter Jimmy Hyams said. “He has recruited well and developed players.
“Tennessee is no longer a pushover along the line of scrimmage … but for UT to play with the elite in the SEC, it must get better and more consistent QB play.”
What to expect
Pruitt said at his opening press conference that “every inch that the other team gets it going to be challenged,” and most fully expect that to happen on Saturday.
Tennessee ranks third in the SEC in total defense and second in scoring defense and will be facing a young Georgia offense that is projected to start just one senior.
The Bulldogs’ projected offensive lineup has a combined 68 starts, compared with a veteran Vols’ offense that has six seniors and 188 combined starts.
Georgia has looked efficient under the direction of former walk-on Stetson Bennett, a poised redshirt junior with great mobility and good decision-making.
Does Pruitt have the defense to take Bennett out of his comfort zone and force deeper downfield throws?
That would obviously be a key, because Bennett’s size (he’s generously listed at 5-11) can limit his downfield vision when passing lanes don’t open up, and his relative lack of arm strength makes him less effective on deep outs and deep balls than other quarterbacks.
It all comes back to the line of scrimmage, where both the Georgia O-Line and Tennessee D-Line are scrambling to replace key departures from last year’s teams.
Kirby Smart is 37-6 when UGA scores first but only 8-7 when an opponent scores first, and he’s 39-3 when leading at the half but just 7-9 when tied or trailing entering the third quarter.
Could it be any more obvious Tennessee needs Chaney to help them off to a good start?
That’s what happened last year, as the Vols led 14-13 with 2 minutes left in the second quarter before Jake Fromm flipped the offensive into overdrive en route to the 41-14 win.
It’s hard to imagine either team scoring that much in this season’s contest, but Georgia’s seasoned and opportunistic defense should prove the difference.
Georgia-Tennessee statistical comparison
7th Georgia 253.0
10th Tennessee 225.5
Pass efficiency defense
1st Georgia (2nd nationally) 86.35
3rd Tennessee 126.52
2nd Tennessee 182.5
3rd Georgia 161.5
1st Georgia 58.0
8th Tennessee 107.5
7th Georgia 414.5
9th Tennessee 408.0
1st Georgia 248.0
3rd Tennessee 361.5
5th Tennessee 33.0
6th Georgia 32.0
1. Georgia 8.00
2. Tennessee 19.5
Third down-conversion rate
7th Georgia .441
13th Tennessee .292
7th Tennessee .618
10th Georgia .600
3rd Tennessee 9-70
14th Georgia 20-167
Fewest first downs
1st Georgia (9 rush, 16 pass, 5 penalty)
2nd Tennessee (11 rush, 24 pass, 2 penalty)
Most first downs
T-4th (25 run, 20 pass, 2 Penalty)
T-7th (21, 22 4)
1st Georgia 43.00
2nd Tennessee 33.00
Kick return defense
3rd Tennessee 10.00
6th Georgia 16.40
4th Georgia 45.78
9th Tennessee 38.50