KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Jordan Jenkins doesn’t need to watch game film or study statistical tendencies to know what kind of game Georgia is going to get from Tennessee on Saturday. He could have told you that back in August.
“I just know that every year I’ve been here, Tennessee has always been a close game,” the senior outside linebacker said. “So before the season even started I already knew that this game was going to be a close one. I know that there is going to be a lot of emotion in the game after the way the last time went we were there and the way last season went. It’s just going to be a hostile game in a hostile environment.”
Indeed, while Georgia has won five in a row in this series, the victories have gotten increasingly harrowing over time. After winning by 27 in Athens in 2010, the Bulldogs’ last four wins have come by eight, seven and three points twice.
The last time Georgia visited noisy Neyland Stadium in 2013, it took Tennessee’s Pig Howard losing control of the football as he dove for the pylon for the Bulldogs to win on a field goal in overtime, 34-31. Georgia got 208 yards rushing and two touchdowns from Todd Gurley last year in Athens but had to recover an onsides kick and knock out two first downs to hold on for a 35-32 victory.
Arguably, those were better UGA teams going against a lesser Tennessee opponent. And the Vols’ team they’ll face Saturday afternoon certainly will be more desperate than those last two. Of course, with their recent undressing by Alabama, it’s a pretty important day for the Bulldogs, too.
“The thing is, with it being an East game, all of the East games are huge, especially how some of the other East teams are playing,” senior tackle John Theus said. “You’ve got teams like Florida that are undefeated. Ultimately you want to get to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. … We do know the importance of the game. We are aware of that.”
Tennessee was expected to be Georgia’s primary competition in the East this year. It was a consensus No. 2 pick behind the Bulldogs in preseason polls and actually got a lot of number one votes as well. In year three under Butch Jones, the thought was the Vols finally had recruited itself back to the level it had enjoyed with regularity under former coach Phillip Fulmer.
And there’s evidence that might still be the case. While the Vols (2-3, 0-2 SEC) have lost three games, they did so only after building double-digit leads on all three opponents. Two of them, Oklahoma and Florida, are now undefeated and ranked 10 and 11, respectively.
Meanwhile, the turmoil that arose within Tennessee’s camp in the spring has continued in the fall. Jones dismissed Howard — last season’s leading receiver — earlier this week for undisclosed team rules violations. He did the same thing earlier this fall with starting defensive lineman Danny O’Brien.
Then came the latest accusation that Jones had gotten overly physical with offensive lineman Mack Crowder during preseason practices. Rumors had grown so intense that school president and board of trustees had to address it this week. They said an internal investigation proved the speculation to be unfounded.
“I know that the university and our athletics department did their due diligence, and we’re moving forward,” Jones said during his weekly appearance on Nashville radio station WGFX-FM late Thursday afternoon. “I can tell you this: All the rumors were completely untrue. It’s very, very unfortunate that we had to go through this for the last couple days, but we’re moving on and we’re looking forward to competing on Saturday against a very good Georgia football team.”
Whether that sideshow was a distraction for the Vols will have to be determined on Saturday. And Georgia’s ability to focus on the task at hand will be similarly tested.
The Bulldogs (4-1, 1-1), then ranked No. 8, were brought down to Earth by Alabama in a 38-10 domination last Saturday at Sanford Stadium. Georgia gave up special teams and defensive touchdowns and saw its revered running game stuffed except for a late 83-yard scoring run by tailback Nick Chubb.
That lopsided loss brought out the Mark Richt critics en force.
“I don’t blame people for being critical of what happened on Saturday,” Richt said. “I don’t at all. I love the passion of our fans that they care enough. I really do. But we’re more critical than they are as far as you look at yourself in the mirror and say you didn’t get the job done.”
Richt is 10-4 in his 14 seasons against Tennessee. The Bulldogs were 2-9 over the previous 14 years.
Georgia’s rushing attack is not expected to encounter that level of resistance from the Vols that it did versus Bama. Tennessee is 11th in the league against the run (171.6 ypg) and last in overall defense (411 ypg). So odds are good that Nick Chubb could break Herschel Walker’s consecutive 100-yard games streak (13) at the place where Walker introduced himself to the college football world. This year is the 35th anniversary of Walker’s famous TD run over Tennessee safety Bill Bates.
But the Vols also run the ball quite well themselves (225 ypg, 3rd in SEC). They have a formidable zone-read combination in quarterback Josh Dobbs and tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara.
“I definitely think that’s in the back of your mind,” senior linebacker Jake Ganus said of the Alabama debacle. “But we’re just focusing on ourselves. We’re not talking about Alabama. When you make so many mistakes like that it comes down to what you do, not so much what the other team does. So we’re just focusing on ourselves and just trying to be the best team we can be.”
The complexion of the game feels eerily similar to 2007, when the Bulldogs came in as the prohibitive favorite and local scribes were debating the fate of Fulmer. Tennessee rolled that day, 35-14.
“It’s gonna be loud, that’s for sure,” Georgia senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “They have to enjoy playing there. But you never know what will happen on their end or ours. You just have to play your best and be ready for any adversity that comes.”
As evidenced when these teams get together here late, you can expect adversity to come.