That photo is from three years ago, the last time Tennessee played in a game like this. Georgia came in ranked seventh, the Vols out of the poll after their hail mary loss at Florida. The Dawgs came out on the other side of a 41-0 victory in the top five, and ended the year a breath away from a national championship. Tennessee left that day knowing the program had probably climbed as high as it would climb under Butch Jones, not yet knowing how swiftly or how far it would fall from there.
It was also the day Jarrett Guarantano became Tennessee’s best option at quarterback, taking over for Quinten Dormady in the third quarter with the Vols down 31-0. Tomorrow will be the 35th game Guarantano has played in at Tennessee. He is eighth on Tennessee’s all-time passing list, and will pass Jeff Francis sometime this month if he stays healthy, leaving a string of last-name-only quarterbacks in front of him: Manning, Clausen, Ainge, Bray, Dobbs, Kelly.
But Jarrett Guarantano has never played in a game like this. There’s a fullness to the circle that it’s Georgia tomorrow.
To be sure, Guarantano has played elite teams; to be Tennessee’s quarterback is to see them on the schedule every year. And he’s gotten it done as the two-touchdown underdog, his performance at Auburn two years ago maybe his best. That Auburn was not this Georgia. But those Vols were not this Tennessee.
Stetson Bennett has played in a game like this, because he just did it last week. And he gave exactly the kind of performance Georgia wants while riding its elite defense: 17-of-28 (60.7%) for 240 yards (8.6 ypa), one touchdown, no interceptions. Nothing spectacular, everything solid.
This kid is still a mystery, and some percentage of Tennessee’s best chance to win is in revealing it, and discovering Stetson Bennett IV is some percentage of Joe Tereshinski III. Tereshinski was a good story until he went 12-of-20 for 164 yards with two picks against the Vols, the last time Tennessee beat a Top 10 team all of 14 years ago. Good stories have a way of being replaced by great talent in this league; Matthew Stafford had the offense not long after.
There’s some historical harmony for Tennessee on the table tomorrow. The Vols have beaten 11 ranked teams since that 2006 game in Athens, including a handful of almost-Top-10 opponents: #12 Georgia the following year, which went on to finish #2. #11 South Carolina in 2013. #12 Kentucky in Pruitt’s first season. But a win tomorrow would be Tennessee’s first Top 10 victory since #10 Georgia in 2006, its first Top 5 win since #4 LSU the year before, and its highest win over a ranked foe since #3 Georgia the year before that.
Since 1985, Tennessee’s wins against the top five:
- 1985 #1 Auburn
- 1985 #2 Miami
- 1989 #4 Auburn
- 1991 #5 Notre Dame
- 1992 #4 Florida
- 1995 #4 Ohio State
- 1998 #2 Florida
- 1998 #2 Florida State
- 2001 #2 Florida
- 2004 #3 Georgia
- 2005 #4 LSU
That’s eleven Top 5 wins in 35 years, none in the last 15 years. And only six Top 3 wins in 35 years.
This is the first time Tennessee has played in a game like this in three years, which makes us all kinds of eager. Understand how rarified the air of victory would be.
How do we get there? Two years ago the Vols punted on each of their five first half drives, down 17-0 at the break at #2 Georgia. The Dawgs opened the second half with a 10-play, 75-yard drive to make it 24-0. Tennessee, to their credit and Jeremy Pruitt’s delight, had some fight in them: the Vols responded with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in kind, then made Georgia punt twice in a row before responding with another score to make it 24-12 with 11 minutes to play. The Dawgs did their thing: 13 plays, 75 yards, converting three third downs but none longer than 3rd-and-4. Then Tennessee fumbled on its next snap, adding one on in a 38-12 Georgia win.
Last year with Brian Maurer at the helm, the Vols fell behind 7-0 before hitting a big play to Marquez Callaway to tie it, then took the lead on a 10-play drive, ending on the first snap of the second quarter. They held Georgia to three again, then traded punts for three series before the Dawgs scored again to take a 20-14 lead. Brent Cimaglia missed a 47-yard field goal with a minute to play in the second quarter, and Georgia pounced with a quick-strike touchdown to make it 26-14 instead of 20-17.
Tennessee’s defense actually held it at two possessions longer than I remembered: Georgia’s first three second half drives produced a three-and-out, field goal, and turnover on downs. But the offense got no traction, with Maurer throwing a costly first down pick at midfield with four minutes left in the third quarter. Georgia put on another 10-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth, then another late fumble pushed the margin to 43-14.
Tennessee’s defense is built around denying big plays: best in the nation in not giving up 30+ yard plays last year, tied for 10th in that stat so far this year. Georgia’s offense has been good enough to play that game and win it against the Vols.
Their touchdown drives against Jeremy Pruitt’s defense the last two years:
- 8 plays, 86 yards
- 12 plays, 70 yards
- 10 plays, 75 yards
- 13 plays, 75 yards
- 2 plays, 31 yards (late fumble 2018)
- 12 plays, 84 yards
- 6 plays, 60 yards
- 5 plays, 70 yards (final minute of first half 2019)
- 10 plays, 75 yards
When they had to have it in a hurry before halftime last season, they got it. Otherwise they’ve grinded the Vols down with third down efficiency: 8-of-14 in 2018, 5-of-11 last year.
And they don’t turn it over, and don’t take sacks: Darrell Taylor got them three times by himself in 2018, but no one touched Jake Fromm last season. Stetson Bennett was sacked once last week. It’s not much different from what Tennessee wants to get from Jarrett Guarantano, only with a more elite defense behind it.
Can Tennessee’s defense make up that difference? The Vols don’t have the talent advantage to simply beat Georgia playing Georgia’s game. So much hype, and rightfully so on both sides, is on Tennessee’s offensive line vs. Georgia’s defense. But I think the biggest way the Vols can impact this game is with their defense vs Stetson Bennett. Those magic numbers again: for all the flaws of the post-Fulmer era, the Vols are 18-4 since 2009 when they get at least four sacks, 25-2 with a +2 turnover margin.
Can Tennessee’s defense impact this game the way Auburn’s couldn’t? Can they force Georgia off their schedule and put more of the game on Bennett’s shoulders? Because that’s a trade I’d take with Guarantano, the one experience advantage the Vols have in this fight beyond offensive line: our quarterback has never played in a game like this, but might have more big third down throws under his belt than any quarterback in the nation.
Tennessee is going to need some. Can they make Georgia need some too?