So, how do we win this thing?
The question itself is already a bit of a win. The last three times we did this against #1, it was Bama in 2017-19. And the Vols were +36.5, +29.5, and +34.5. I can live with +20.5 this week. Our community gives the Vols a 13.7% chance of victory in expected win totals, doubling up the 6.7% we gave the Vols in Tuscaloosa this year.
And I can live with Georgia in mid-November, though with expansion I’m not sure how much longer any of us are living with anything. Tennessee faced a front-loaded schedule for almost 30 years in the SEC East. Now, in better years you’ve still got a chance to win the East if you can pull the upset. And this year – which qualifies as a better year compared to where we’ve been, and where we thought we might continue to hang out – it’s all opportunity. Win, and you’ve scored one of the program’s biggest victories in 15 years. And lose – even lose badly – and you’ve done so to #1, and we already know the why. There is no outcome here – including victory! – where Tennessee doesn’t need to recruit.
Georgia’s defense is the best in the nation, with room for improvement in the annals of history:
You’ll note the Vols are +14 in SP+ on Saturday. Come within 16 of these guys – two possessions – and you’ve done better than anyone since Clemson in the 10-3 opener. Score 14 points on them, and you’ve done better than anyone all year.
The two best defenses the Vols have faced in the last three coaching staffs are the 2016-17 Crimson Tide. The 2017 edition shut out the Vol offense – shout out to Daniel Bituli – but that offense wasn’t much to write home about. However, the 2016 version snuffed out Dobbs, Kamara, etc. to the tune of 163 yards on 63 plays. You’ll recall the week before, they had 684 yards on 99 plays at Texas A&M.
Hopefully, that’s a meaningless comparison. But we have seen it before: no matter how we’ll you’re playing or will play on offense, an elite defense can still shut it down.
Can the reverse be true?
Heupel and these guys have done a tremendous job having the Vols in every one of these games deep into the second half. It’s where we hoped the program would find itself last season, in Pruitt’s year three. I don’t know if it’s fair to expect that against Georgia – I honestly don’t know what to expect – but whether it shows up or not, Heupel and these guys have earned our trust in having his team ready to go. Obviously, this is especially true on offense. On defense? Before last week, I think we all would’ve been intrigued to see these guys go after Stetson Bennett and see what happened. There’s obviously less excitement around that after the Kentucky game, but on the whole, I’m still intrigued to see if that side of the ball can make a dent.
There’s a lot of guesswork and a few common assumptions when you’re playing number one – win turnovers, hidden points, etc. – but to me, one thing jumps off the page.
This Tennessee team is no stranger to a wide gap between outcomes on a given play. The most obvious one is the difference between the offense and defense on third down: 27th nationally at 45.38% on offense, 126th nationally at 48.39% on defense.
But an even bigger gap in potential outcomes exists when Tennessee drops back to pass.
The Vols and Louisville are tied for the national lead with four 70+ yard pass plays. We’re 16th in 30+ yard pass plays. And that’s all on just 239 passing attempts this season, 107th nationally. Among teams throwing it 25+ times per game, the Vols are eighth nationally in yards per attempt.
And Hendon Hooker has added 458 yards on the ground, going for 60+ in four different games this year.
There is so much good that happens when Tennessee drops back to pass. It’s amazing the Vols are getting all that done while also taking a sack on 13.03% of their dropbacks. That’s 126th nationally via Team Rankings.
Just as the explosive plays look even better when you consider how few times we actually throw it, the sacks look even worse. It also feels like we’re living on borrowed time in the turnover battle, where Tennessee – currently +5 in SEC play – has a chance to finish in the black there for the first time since Lane Kiffin.
Georgia is ninth nationally in sack percentage, getting the opposing quarterback 9.73% of the time. If there’s any benefit here besides having all our guys healthy, it’s that we’ve already played Alabama. Not that Bama was so great at getting Hooker on the ground, but that it’s hard to simulate going against that kind of talent. We saw Josh Heupel repeatedly run it on third-and-short and get buried every time against those guys. You just have to learn and adjust.
Will the Vols make any adjustment to protect Hooker, the ball, etc. against Georgia? Or is this just part of who we are this year: when Tennessee drops back to pass, something incredibly exciting is going to happen one way or another.
Of course, the biggest hope this week:
Truly, we haven’t been able to simulate any of this. We’re still learning how to watch football this way. We didn’t expect to be this competitive, with everyone. We don’t know how that’ll look against Georgia’s defense. Perhaps they’re not sure exactly how that’ll look against our offense. And we head into a date with the number one team in the nation feeling good about ourselves for the long haul.
What’ll happen Saturday?
Probably something exciting, one way or another.