KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Kirby Smart puts ball security among the top priorities in the Georgia football program, and that could prove key on Saturday.
Former SEC coach Jeremy Pruitt recruited most of the current starters on the Tennessee team when he was the Vols’ head coach, but he also coached next to Smart for six years at Alabama and knows how UGA’s head coach thinks.
Pruitt believes the Bulldogs’ ability to get an early turnover could be a key for a Georgia win.
The No. 1-ranked Bulldogs play host to a No. 2-ranked Tennessee team that features a quarterback with an insane 21-to-1 TD-to-interception ratio in Heisman favorite Hendon Hooker.
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The Vols average a plus-one turnover ratio each game — 11th in the nation — while Georgia has given the ball away has much as it has taken it away, tied for 67th in the country in that statistical department.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett has a 3-to-1 TD-to-interception ratio with 9 TD passes and 3 interceptions, and the Bulldogs have fumbled six times.
Bennett acknowledged Florida scored 10 of its 20 points last Saturday off turnovers, but he pointed out, “they didn’t stop us other than that.”
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Georgia coach Kirby Smart said turnover drills and ball security are an “emphasis” each day for the Bulldogs.
“That’s what we start every practice with, that’s what we hang our hat on,” Smart said. “That’s what we protect our program with, is the ball …. it’s certainly important.”
Tennessee will certainly take deep shots, as Hooker leads the nation in pass completions over 30 yards (23) and 40 yards (15).
The Bulldogs, however, feature two of the top safeties in the country in Christopher Smith and Malaki Starks.
It’s fair to say Georgia is due, as it hasn’t recorded an interception since the fourth game of the season against Kent State.
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Smart, however, said he’s confident in the Bulldogs’ secondary.
“I think they’ve gotten better each and every week,” Smart said. “Grown some depth in the secondary playing some other guys. I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
Pruitt shared his three keys to the game:
1. Special teams dynamic
“I think Georgia is going to block a field goal. You look at Tennessee against Alabama, even on the game-winning field goal, there was a lot of leakage in there, and it was the same thing against Kentucky.
“Now you’ve got Jalen Carter in there, and there’s a chance to me that if they block it, they’re gonna scoop and score. I really see Georgia blocking a field goal this week.”
2. Explosive plays
“How many explosive plays offensive will Georgia have? Can they hit a few shots down the field? Last year they had (James) Cook a couple of times matched up with Tennessee linebackers and hit ‘em on a sluggo (route).
“Easy plays — they do not want to get to a game where Tennessee is creating all the explosive plays and Georgia is having to grind it out, because then it brings in the officiating.”
3. Turnover margin
“Everything has went well for Tennessee at the start of games, and they have been fast starters. So they’ve played from being ahead in a lot of the games.
“How does Georgia start, and can they control the momentum early and do it with turnovers? I think that’s going to be the difference in the game.”