Tennessee at Georgia Preview: How Many Stops For Each Team?

In a four-team playoff, there may still be opportunity for the loser on Saturday. Because of that, it’s hard to quantify exactly where this game falls on the list of, you know, “biggest ever.”

But I do know this: if Clemson, TCU, and the Ohio State/Michigan winner remain undefeated, it’s very unlikely the loser is getting in. You give up control of your own destiny. So I don’t know if this will end up being remembered as the biggest game since xyz…but it very well might be. Might as well win it.

The calendar is always such a factor, and the truth is, we never really know. Other than the BCS Championship Game, we didn’t really know our favorite memories from 1998 could become some of our favorite memories ever at kickoff. This is how 2001 Florida, the only non-98 comparison to what we’ve seen this year, gets so high up the list: you knew all the stakes, the rewards and the consequences.

We don’t know all the consequences here. But we absolutely know the rewards. So how can the Vols get them?

Tennessee may be evolving beyond its most reliable predictor of success: Hendon Hooker’s rushing/sacks allowed. The Vols remain 11-1 when Hooker averages 3+ yards per carry as a starter, with the lone loss coming against Ole Miss last year. He averaged 8.6 per carry against Florida, 5.6 at LSU, and 4.0 against Alabama.

But the Vols are now 3-4 when he doesn’t. One of those wins is the Pitt game, which turned ugly early and stayed that way for much of the day, an overtime affair the Vols won. But against Kentucky, Hooker ran just 10 times for 23 yards…and Tennessee rolled.

Clearly, the Vol offense can get it going even without Hooker’s legs. But I do still think pass protection is a huge piece of the equation.

Here’s a fun game I like to call:

What made Tennessee punt?

  • Florida: never punted
  • LSU: 2Q Leading 20-0, three straight incompletions from the LSU 38
  • LSU: 3Q Leading 30-7, offensive pass interference created 1st-and-19, punted on 4th-and-6
  • Alabama: 2Q Leading 21-10: no gain, incomplete, complete to Fant for 7, punted on 4th-and-3 (muffed)
  • Kentucky: 1Q Leading 7-0, offensive pass interference created 1st-and-25, punted on 4th-and-27 after holding penalty
  • Kentucky: 2Q Leading 20-6, sack on first down created 2nd-and-18, punted on 4th-and-8
  • Kentucky: 3Q Leading 37-6, false start on first down created 1st-and-15, sack on third down created 4th-and-20

Of those seven punts in Tennessee’s four SEC wins, six came with the Vols already in front by at least two possessions. The other, of course, is the 4th-and-27 punt from last week. But you can sense a pattern: two drives stopped by OPIs, two others by sacks.

Again, not rocket science: the best way to slow down this offense is to put them in negative yardage, or hope the officials agree with your interpretation. Tennessee does remain one of the most penalized teams in the nation (122nd in penalties per game, 124th in penalty yards per game). The defending champs are fifth in flags per game and 15th in penalty yards per game. Something to keep an eye on, especially on the road.

One big question this week is impossible to answer until gametime: how much better was last year’s historic Georgia defense compared to this one? If you’re looking for Hooker’s worst performance as a runner, it’s easily that game last season: 17 carries for seven yards, sacked six times.

And yet, the Vols scored 17 points and had their chances for more:

  • 1Q 7-7: 3rd-and-1 at the UT 34, Hooker run for no gain, punt
  • 3Q 24-10 UGA: 4th-and-4 at the UGA 17, incomplete
  • 3Q 27-10 UGA: 4th-and-13 at the UGA 39 (after sacked on 2nd-and-6), incomplete
  • 4Q 34-10 UGA: 3rd-and-6 at the UGA 7, Hooker sacked and fumbled

Where’s the line between the improvement of Tennessee’s offense and the rebuild/reload of Georgia’s defense?

Perhaps more important to victory on Saturday: how often can Tennessee’s own defense get off the field?

Here’s how the Vols let Georgia off the hook last year:

  • 1Q 7-0 UT: 3rd-and-7 at the UGA 44, Stetson Bennett run for 13 yards
  • 2Q 10-7 UT: 3rd-and-8 at the UT 38, Bennett to McConkey for 14 yards
  • 2Q 17-10 UGA: 3rd-and-7 at the UGA 30, Bennett to Mitchell for 11 yards
  • 2Q 17-10 UGA: 3rd-and-5 at the UT 32, Bennett to Mitchell for 9 yards
  • 3Q 24-10 UGA: 3rd-and-10 at the UT 40, Bennett to Bowers for 14 yards

The Dawgs ended the day just 5-of-12 on third down, but each of their five conversions was at 5+ yards to go. When you get the chance to get off the field against this bunch, you have to take it.

Georgia also gashed the Vols in the red zone last year, with no real down-and-distance opportunities for the Vols to stop them. I’ll be curious to see if Tennessee’s much-improved red zone defense can make that part a factor in this year’s game.

In our expected win total machine, fans are giving the Vols a 46.1% chance of victory. On the road, that feels like a toss-up number, which says a lot about how far we’ve come. Can the Vols protect Hooker and avoid going backwards on offense? And can the defense get off the field on third-and-medium?

Do that, and we’ll be projecting 12 regular season wins come Monday.

Go Vols.

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