Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker ranks among the most explosive and productive players in the nation.
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Kirby Smart’s Georgia defense braces for lightning-fast Tennessee offense

ATHENS — Kirby Smart is working to get No. 1-ranked Georgia ready for some fast-break football at Tennessee, and it hasn’t been easy.

The Bulldogs (9-0. 7-0 SEC) play the Vols (5-4, 3-3) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Neyland Stadium in a clash of styles.

Tennessee, coming off a 45-42 win at Kentucky, leads the nation with 2.92 plays per minute and is scoring at an explosive rate of 1.59 points per minute, which ranks second in the country.

Hooker has started seven games and produced 23 touchdowns (19 passing, four rushing) while throwing just one interception. Hooker has averaged 243 yards passing and 51 yards rushing, with Tennessee scoring 38.9 points per game.

Josh Heupel, in his first season as Tennessee’s head coach after three seasons leading Central Florida, has seen his teams score 14 or more points in all 45 of his games. Heupel’s teams have, in fact, scored at least 20 points in 44 of his 45 games.

This Georgia defense, meanwhile, has not allowed more than 13 points in a game this season — the first to do so through nine games at the FBS level since Alabama’s 1992 national championship team.

The Bulldogs lead the nation in Scoring Defense (6.56 points per game) and rank second in the country in Total Defense (231.8 yards per game) Rushing Defense (80.7 yards per game) and Passing Defense (151.4 yards per game).

The Vols, however, represent a different sort of challenge than Georgia has faced this season.

“We have to be in great condition to play them; that’s where I feel like they beat a lot of teams,” Georgia safety Lewis Cine said. “Guys are gassed, or they’re not lined up in time, and then, whoosh, they get an explosive play.

“If they are lining up in 7 or 8 seconds, we have to line up in 5 or 6 (seconds) to have an edge.”

Smart, a former Georgia safety himself. noted Tennessee leads the nation with 5 touchdown passes of more than 70 yards.

Cine said the Bulldogs aren’t so much scared to play the Vol as they are aware of how it will be a tough week of practice in preparation for the Big Orange’s lightning pace of play.

“I’m more nervous for what we’re going to get in practice — we’re not going to get the speed they are going at, we’re going to get a little faster than what they are doing,” Cine said, describing how UGA will use two scout teams on one practice field against the first-team defense.

“We’re in for a rude awakening in practice today, but I feel like that will make us better.”

Smart shared after Saturday’s 43-6 win over Missouri that he has gotten an eyeful of Tennessee football games with Georgia having so many early kicks this season, and the Vols’ playing several evenings.

“I’ve been able to watch them play several weeks where we’ve either been off or had this early game,” Smart said. “Tennessee has actually played a lot better than some of their scores indicate.”

SEC Network analyst Gene Chizek agrees.

“There are a lot of teams that are glad they played Tennessee in September,” Chizek said Saturday night.

“You don’t want any part of these guys right now.”

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