Here we go. It’s the biggest game of the entire college football season, in a place we didn’t expect.
By Matt Zemek
Before the season began, this was not viewed as the battle which would have a central role in shaping the SEC championship race and the College Football Playoff.
It is not lost on anyone that the first Saturday of November is regularly set aside for the annual Alabama-LSU game, one of the centerpiece games in most college football seasons. This year’s Bama-LSU game is certainly good and interesting, with Nick Saban going up against Brian Kelly. CBS, as it normally does, secured a prime-time slot for Tide-Tigers well in advance, but Georgia-Tennessee is actually a bigger game, and no one is debating that claim.
Tennessee is No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, meaning that the Vols are No. 1 for the first time since their national championship season in 1998. Georgia is the defending national champion, but the Dawgs are No. 3 in the playoff pecking order. No worries: They can change that if they win here. Obviously, Tennessee wants to prevent that and become the SEC East champion. Tennessee is trying to get back to Atlanta for the first time since 2007. That is the main stepping stone to a College Football Playoff berth and a full return to the top tier of the college football landscape.
Here’s what Tennessee must do more than anything else:
1 – Red Zone Defense
Tennessee’s defense isn’t great, but with that loaded Josh Heupel-Hendon Hooker offense, it doesn’t have to be great. It just has to be good enough. “Bend don’t break” is the mantra for Tennessee. The approach wasn’t executed well against Alabama, which scored 49 points. You can do the quick math: 49 points means a lot of touchdowns. If Tennessee can turn touchdowns into field goals, it can hold Georgia to 33 points instead of 49. UT won’t stop Georgia, but if it can keep the Dawgs under 35, the offense has a very good chance of bringing home the win. Prevent the big plays, stand tall in the red zone, hold UGA under 35.
2 – Second Receiver
Georgia and Kirby Smart have surely spent a lot of time looking at Tennessee game film. They know how devastating Jalin Hyatt is as the Vols’ primary receiver. They will be focused on stopping him. So, Heupel and Hooker have to know how important it is to put a second receiver in position to take advantage of the focus on Hyatt and deliver a huge game. It could be Bru McCoy. It could be someone else. The main thing is for the Vols to make sure that if Hyatt is bracketed by multiple UGA defenders, someone else is ready and able to deliver a big game.
3 – Figure out a running plan
Maybe Tennessee can hammer the ball between the tackles at times. The Vols would obviously love to establish that portion of their offense so that they can then throw over the top against a stacked box which commits to stopping the run. However, Georgia is so strong up front that UT might need to throw a lot of quick hitch passes as “extended handoffs.” Heupel needs to have a way of getting five yards per snap on safe, high-percentage plays. He doesn’t necessarily have to hand off the ball, but he does need a measure of safety in his offense to set up bigger downfield shots.