No. 2 Tennessee took it on the chin at No. 1 Georgia on Saturday, falling 27-6 to the Bulldogs. Here are 10 things that stood out.
1.) Bad games happen sometimes.
This is sports. And, in sports, as in other facets of life, you sometimes have one of those games where nothing goes your way. Usually there are things you could’ve done better that contribute to your bad day, but then it becomes a snowball effect and it just gets completely out of control. As adults, we all have days where we want to slink off to the bedroom, pull the curtains closed, and just go to bed. Today was one of those days for Tennessee football.
Today doesn’t say anything about Josh Heupel or Hendon Hooker or any of the other characters that took Tennessee to No. 1 in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings. There’s nothing that makes me roll my eyes harder than the fans who jump on social media to utter some variation of “same ol’ Tennessee.”
Remember, Tennessee had a lot of these days last year. Heupel calmly went about his business and what resulted was what we saw through the first eight games of this season. Heupel will continue to go about his business, and continue to build this UT program.
2.) Growing pains.
It was billed as “the game of the year,” and it was. No. 1 vs. No. 3 in the playoff standings. The right to represent the SEC East in the conference championship game. So much on the line. Georgia looked like it had been on this stage before. Tennessee didn’t.
That’s for good reason. Even though Tennessee is a veteran team, it’s still a team that’s “learning how to win,” as high school coaches often say. And Josh Heupel is still in just his second season as the head coach of a Power 5 program. It all showed today; Heupel was badly out-coached by Georgia’s Kirby Smart.
Tennessee was out-classed against Georgia, but that’s okay. The next time the Vols get a chance to be on a stage like this one — and you have a feeling it will happen, sooner rather than later — they’ll probably be better prepared.
3.) Hooker’s forgettable day.
Hendon Hooker easily had the worst day of his Tennessee career. Not so much mechanically; he was 19 of 26, and made a poor decision on the throw that was intercepted, while over-throwing a pair of open receivers that probably would have scored touchdowns. But more-so with his decision-making. He held onto the ball way too long way too often, threw short of the sticks on third down, and did absolutely nothing to disrupt Georgia’s blitzing defense when the Bulldogs had the snap count timed perfectly. The initial box score has UGA with six sacks. I would almost bet money it was more than that.
Today’s game was the first time in 21 games that Hooker did not have a touchdown pass.
What does that do to Hooker’s Heisman hopes? Well, everyone has a bad day. CJ Stroud at Ohio State had a far worse day — though, to be fair, Stroud was dealing with 40 mph winds and awful weather. Still, I think the loss does far more to hurt Hooker’s Heisman chances than his stat line.
4.) Tennessee’s defense didn’t play terrible.
A lot was made of Tennessee’s offense, which entered Saturday’s game ranked No. 1 in the nation. But Georgia’s offense is exceptionally good, too; the Bulldogs entered ranked No. 2 in the nation. Obviously UGA’s defense played exceptionally well. Tennessee’s defense, though, didn’t play all that poorly.
It seemed like it in the first half. Tennessee got burned on a couple of Stetson Bennett touchdown passes in the first half, and missed a potential sack of Bennett on Bennett’s third-and-long rushing score, but the Vols settled in after that.
Some of that, of course, was because UGA took its foot off the gas a little in the second half and turned to its running game. But, admit it, if you had been told going in that Tennessee’s defense would have two takeaways and hold Georgia under 30 points, you would have thought that the Vols would win the game.
Tennessee’s defense did enough to win the game.
5.) With that said…
As maligned as Tennessee’s secondary has been, the Vols actually have one of the best rush defenses in the nation. Today Georgia had 132 yards on the ground. They averaged 3.7 yards per carry, which isn’t that spectacular, but they found too much running room at times in the first half.
Another disappointment: Georgia converted 7 of 12 third downs.
And another: Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks is one of the most aggressive defensive play callers in the country. He has to be in order to cover some of the Vols’ deficiencies on defense. And it often works. UT has managed to get pressure on every QB it has faced this season…until today. Tennessee couldn’t get to Bennett at all.
6.) Georgia’s defense.
You can’t say enough about Georgia’s defensive effort. Tennessee’s high-flying offense is the best in the country this year and one of the best in college football history. Today they had fewer than 300 yards of offense, and did not score a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter. Tennessee was just 2 of 14 on third down.
7.) Self-inflicted wounds.
Tennessee had seven — SEVEN — false starts. That’s awful. That’s inexcusable. And if former UT quarterback Erik Ainge ever makes another tweet about Sanford Stadium not being loud or intimidating, someone should petition Elon Musk to take his account away from him.
8.) Tillman curse?
Bold statement: Tennessee is a better team without Cedric Tillman.
Hear me out. I’m not saying that as a shot against Tillman at all. He’s one of the most talented wide receivers in the nation. And he was Tennessee’s leading receiver against Georgia, with seven catches. He’s a special talent who will soon be a millionaire, playing on Sundays.
But Hooker tends to try to force the ball to Tillman too much. That was the case early in the season, against Pittsburgh. Remember, that was the only other time this season that UT’s offense had struggled. Tillman was hurt against Akron the next week and didn’t return until last week’s game against Kentucky, and his snaps were limited in that game. Today, Hooker again tried to force the ball to Tillman, and that resulted in an INT on Tennessee’s best offensive drive of the first half.
9.) Thank goodness for CBS being out-bid.
I’ll miss the SEC on CBS theme music when the Saturday afternoon games move away from the network. I won’t miss Gary Danielson. His homerism makes him completely unlistenable. And Brad Nessler has long been one of the best play-by-play guys on television, but Danielson is making him unlistenable, as well.
Danielson is smarmy, arrogant, condescending, and just all-around nauseating.
10.) What it all boils down to…
Talent. Georgia has a lot more of it than Tennessee.
You hear people who think they know a lot about college football say all the time that recruiting rankings don’t mean much. Hogwash. Recruiting rankings mean everything. Sure, you have to develop your talent; if it was just about recruiting, Butch Jones would still be coaching in Knoxville. But guys like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart develop their guys very well. And that matters.
Good coaches can sometimes out-scheme talent. Missouri has done it for years. And Tennessee did it this year against Florida, LSU and Alabama. All three had more talent than UT. But the Vols beat all three.
Eventually, though, it always catches up for you. For as good as Missouri was with its out-classed teams in the first few years after it joined the conference, the Tigers never won a national championship — or even came close.
And today it caught up with Tennessee. The bottom line is that Georgia had more natural talent than Tennessee at every single position on the field. And it showed.
Heupel and his staff are recruiting hard. Future games will be more even. Today, though, the talent gap was too much to overcome.