Throughout the off-season and especially with a 10-game SEC schedule, we’ve talked about Tennessee’s final record being a less reliable indicator of progress this year. Instead, how about, “Do we have a chance to win every week?”
Did Tennessee have a chance to win today? Not when it turns the ball over three times in the second half. Not against Georgia.
It might be tempting to cut this game in half, but we need the data from all four quarters. For a time, Tennessee was wearing out the underdog playbook: defensive touchdown, make them kick field goals, a pair of fourth down stops. It felt like the kind of game Georgia might regret.
But then, Georgia wore Tennessee out. Literally: the Dawgs snapped it 77 times, the Vols 63, with a dozen of those on the final drive. The Vol defense, heroic deep into the afternoon, was asked to do far too much too often. And Georgia, despite running a less efficient version of it early, got to play their game: limit turnovers, lean on you offensively, and let that defense do the damage.
All of these things are true at the same time:
- Georgia might have the best defense in the country. They do in SP+, by a significant margin, and that may only grow next week.
- Tennessee’s offensive line got a reality check. I’ll be curious to see where they go from here, but their ceiling was not as high as it needed to be to beat Georgia, plain and simple. Ty Chandler and Eric Gray ran 16 times for 36 yards (2.25 per carry).
- Tennessee’s passing game shares the blame. It includes Jarrett Guarantano, but is not his exclusively. JG was sensational in the first half, then self-destructive on Tennessee’s first two turnovers in the second. On the third, I’m not sure what he’s supposed to do when the backs fail to pick up the blitz like that. Guarantano was part of the problem, but there’s plenty of blame to go around.
How many of those problems will show up when we’re not playing Georgia? Ask Alabama in two weeks.
I said on the radio on Friday that it felt like these Vols skipped a step: all that winning to get back to a game like this, but now you’re playing it at #3 Georgia instead of against, say, #21 Texas A&M or #13 Auburn. Those chances will come. We’ll see if the full picture of this team will still look like progress; that starts with Kentucky next week, and will still include plenty of chances for meaningful wins. If Georgia falls at Alabama next week, the Vols can still hang out in the SEC East conversation, thanks in part to Texas A&M’s win today.
We’ve mentioned this stat a bunch, and it’s painfully worth repeating: since 2001, only the 2015 Vols haven’t lost a three-possession game. Those typically come from being too far behind in talent. That’s true with Georgia; credit Tennessee, particularly its defense, for giving itself a chance for a long time today. But when those chances ran out, Georgia ran by us again.
Progress is not a straight line, though we thought it might look that way for a minute or two today. We’ll see what it looks like next week.