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Friday October 4, 2019

It’s back to reality this weekend. We’ve had not one but two weeks to bask in the surreal spectacle that was the Notre Dame game. Now Georgia begins a stretch of three SEC East games in which they’ll be heavy favorites. As teams begin to position themselves for the postseason and new challengers emerge, fans and observers will be looking to see how the Dawgs go about these conference games. Is there demonstrable improvement? Can Georgia cleanly dispatch unranked conference opponents? Will injuries to players like Campbell and Kindley turn into longer-term issues that affect the team in important ways?

The toughest challenge this month won’t necessarily come from the opponents. These are the games in which Kirby Smart’s emphasis on playing to a standard rather than the opponent is most useful. It was easy to get up for Notre Dame. Focus won’t be an issue from the Florida game on. But when you hear you’re a 20+ point favorite on the road, it’s tempting to let distractions creep in. The Dawgs won’t be able to lean on the crowd that just about willed them to a win two weeks ago. Georgia will have a nice crowd in Knoxville, but the takeover effect of even 20-30,000 Georgia fans will be muted in a 100,000-seat stadium. A boisterous crowd isn’t likely for a noon start against South Carolina or a Homecoming game against Kentucky. It will be up to the players to have the discipline to grind through this stretch and become a better team at the end of it than they are now.

Georgia’s 38-12 win over Tennessee in 2018 was one of the stranger wins of the season. Isaac Nauta’s timely fumble recovery and touchdown run was about the only offense Georgia could muster in the first half. Tennessee closed to within 24-12 early in the fourth quarter, and the vibe around Sanford Stadium got a little uneasy before Georgia scored the final 14 points. It was an atypical day for the offensive line: Tennessee recorded three sacks and four tackles for loss. The Dawgs fumbled the ball four times and were fortunate to recover them. Swift was held to just 50 yards. Justin Fields’s 45 yards and two rushing touchdowns might have been his most important contribution of the season as Jake Fromm was held without a touchdown pass.

Tennessee had some successful moments in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season with impressive wins over good Auburn and Kentucky teams, but the season still ended short of a bowl game. Hopes for a second year bounce in 2019 fizzled after losses to Georgia State and BYU and a 1-3 start. Now Tennessee’s just trying to keep its head above water and keep the whole thing from falling apart. So, yes, we can expect them to come out of the bye week desperate for a win with nothing to lose. That’s fine, and it could keep things close especially if Georgia comes in still a bit hungover from Notre Dame and the bye week. But big underdogs are big underdogs for a reason, and it would take a very uncharacteristic game by both teams to end up with anything other than a comfortable Georgia win.

A few things I’m looking for in this game:

No explosive plays: This tidbit comes from Barrett Sallee: the Vols have just 14 plays longer than 20 yards this season, good for 116th in the nation. Georgia has done fairly well against the big play this year and are once again among the nation’s top ten against explosive plays. Jauan Jennings (yes, he’s back for a fifth season) is the top receiving target and will be a physical matchup. Jennings headlines a talented group of receivers. The issue has been getting them the ball. If they can ge the ball to the receivers, Georgia’s cornerbacks are banged up. Tyson Campbell is unlikely to play. Stokes isn’t quite 100%. Divaad Wilson was impressive against Notre Dame and could have a larger role in this game.

A defensive or special teams score: Georgia has one NOT so far this season – J.R. Reed’s scoop-and-score against Murray State. Tyler Simmons seemed close to breaking open a punt return at Vanderbilt, but Georgia hasn’t threatened a score from the return game since. NOTs were a big part of Georgia’s wins over Tennessee in the 2000s: Damien Gary and Thomas Flowers scored on punt returns, and who can forget Sean Jones’s fumble return? We’ll be curious to see who Smart sends out to field punts after the misadventures of the Notre Dame game. Kearis Jackson is back from injury, but it might be a little soon to put him in a pressure role.

Protect the ball: Georgia won the turnover battle against Notre Dame, but they also put the ball on the turf four times. Fromm hasn’t thrown a pick yet this year, and hopefully that continues. There’s no better way to keep an underdog in a game than turnovers.

Never Crompton: We all know Jim Chaney coached at Tennessee once before earlier in his career. His lone win against Georgia came in 2009 – a game that left us in a very dark place and which certainly factored in the coaching changes that ushered in the Era of Grantham in 2010. Georgia had no answers for Chaney’s offense, and Jonathan Crompton threw for a career-high 310 yards and 4 TD. Jarrett Guarantano has struggled this year (and even regressed according to some metrics) leading Jeremy Pruitt to try freshman Brian Maurer. Pruitt has been coy about which quarterback will start on Saturday, and Georgia should be prepared for either. Two years ago a Tyrique McGhee interception on the first play put the Tennessee offense on its heels right out of the gate. It would be nice to disrupt things early on again this year and have a quarterback controversy play out in front of us. At the very least, the defense can’t let the starter get comfortable and make the plays to gain confidence. A Crompton-like day for another Chaney QB is Tennessee’s best shot to stay in this game.

Opening up the offense: What does that even mean? Yes, we saw in the Notre Dame game how limited the passing game was in the first half. We’d like to get the ball more to Pickens or Robertson or Blaylock or Cager. And what about the tight ends? Oh, and there’s this stable of tailbacks and a monstrous offensive line to run behind.

The advanced stats tell us that Georgia’s offense, on a per-play basis, is among the most efficient and successful in the nation. So then you might look at pace. Georgia’s offense hasn’t run more than 65 plays in a game and ran only 59 against Notre Dame. (That’s no surprise as it seemed as if Georgia barely touched the ball in the first half.) If you’re going to run around 62 plays per game, big yardage totals and points require a higher percentage of those plays to hit. More often than not Georgia manages to be among the top offenses at creating explosive plays. When it’s not, it looks a lot like the Notre Dame game. You can always run more plays using tempo, and we saw that too against Notre Dame. Kirby Smart will be the first to tell you that the tradeoff of tempo is putting a tired defense back on the field, but he’s seen it work too many times to leave that strategy on the shelf.

It comes down to this: if your goal is to spread the ball around and get more players involved in the offense, you’re either going to have to find a way to run more plays or, as we saw against Arkansas State, make each individual play more explosive.

A clean pocket and big holes: This game should be a bit of a pride check for the offensive line. They didn’t have a great game against the Vols last season. Fromm didn’t throw a touchdown and was sacked three times. Swift was held to 50 yards. The biggest play of the first half came on a fumble recovery after pressure knocked the ball out of Fromm’s hand. Smart is expecting a stacked line and Pruitt taking some chances with blitzes to pressure Fromm. It worked well for them last year, and Georgia needs its line performing well to take advantages of the opportunities opened up by Tennessee’s pressure.

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