2018 Vols Opponent Preview: Georgia

Tennessee has beaten Georgia two out of the last three seasons.

That’s the best spin I can put on what was one of the worst Tennessee football games I’ve ever witnessed with my own two eyes. The Bulldogs dismantled the Vols 41–0 in Neyland Stadium last year and I’d be okay if that game was never spoken about again.

But unfortunately, UT has to face UGA every season, so we have to discuss the players that are coming back from that Georgia team that handed the Big Orange a total embarrassment of a loss, and for that, I’ll apologize right up front.

At first glance, it looks like the Bulldogs won’t be as great in 2018 as they were in 2017 when they went 13–2 and nearly beat Alabama in the national championship game. A fair amount of the most productive pieces on their roster moved on and up to the NFL or graduated. So, that’s some positive news, but I have to be honest with you, Georgia is still going to be very good.

Let’s take a closer look at what UGA will be working with in the coming season…

OFFENSE

Georgia’s offense was lethal in 2017. The unit as a whole averaged 35.4 points per game and freshman phenom quarterback Jake Fromm could sling it to talented receivers or he could hand the ball off to a duo of running backs that were a couple of best backs in America.

In 2018, one of those great offensive elements won’t be quite the same. The incredible one-two punch of RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel is gone. Although, that doesn’t mean UGA won’t be able to run the ball. Sophomore D’Andre Swift, and juniors Elijah Holyfield, and Brian Herrien make up a backfield that combined for 1,176 yards on the ground a year ago. Swift will likely be the go-to option, having racked up 618 yards of that 1,176 yard total himself. But make no mistake, the ceilings for Holyfield and Herrien are high and the group will be working behind a fairly stout offensive line.

UGA’s o-line loses first team All-SEC left tackle Isaiah Wynn but they return four starters from a line that produced 258.4 rushing yards per game and gave up 22 sacks. So in short, the Bulldogs’ running game should continue to produce big numbers despite the loss of their two all-star backs.

As for the passing game, Fromm returns for his sophomore season and four of UGA’s top 5 receivers are coming back. It should be noted, although it likely won’t affect Georgia’s game against Tennessee, that star senior receiver Terry Godwin has reportedly missed all of fall camp to this point with what head coach Kirby Smart has called a “minor” knee injury. If Godwin doesn’t play, UGA’s receiving corps certainly takes a big hit but I would still expect him to play by the time UT travels to Athens on September 29th.

Junior wideouts Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley will be forces to be reckoned with on the outside and tight end Isaac Nauta has been hyped as one of the best TEs in the SEC. From all sides, Georgia’s offense appears to be set up for success. The unit may not be as dynamic as in 2018 but if they take only small drop off from a year ago, they will still be very good.

DEFENSE

In 2017, Georgia’s powerful defense only allowed 16.4 points and 294.9 yards per game. The unit was packed with great players and even better leadership.

A solid amount of talent is left after the offseason but upperclassman leaders like Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter are gone. In total, Georgia’s defense returns just 5 starters for the coming season.

On the defensive line, Tyler Clark and Jonathan Ledbetter are the only starters that come back, having combined for 11.5 tackles for loss in 2017. Guys like Notre Dame transfer Jay Hayes will fill the vacancies on the line and highly-touted incoming freshmen like former 5-star Brenton Cox will also help out.

There’s potential for somewhat of a drop off in d-line production for Georgia with the loss of big contributors like Trenton Thompson (38 tackles in ’17) and John Atkins (38 tackles in ’17) but with how good recruiting has been to Georgia in recent years, they’ll likely fill the gaps with more than competent players.

As for the linebackers, it’s going to be a near total reset at the position for UGA. As was mentioned above, the incredible Roquan Smith (137 tackles in ’17) and Lorenzo Carter (61 tackles in ’17) both left for the NFL and Reggie Carter (36 tackles in ’17) and Davin Bellamy (34 tackles in ’17) are also gone. Kirby Smart will almost certainly be relying on sophomores and freshmen for a good deal of production at linebacker but the players waiting in the wings are well regarded so don’t expect them to totally fall apart.

Georgia’s secondary is in fair shape with the return of the No. 2 tackler on the team, JR Reed. Senior corner Deandre Baker and highly regarded sophomore safety Richard Lecounte III round out a unit that is inexperienced but extremely talented.

On the whole, Georgia’s defense likely won’t be as stout as it was a year ago. Losing team leaders who were big contributors can crumple a unit if care is not taken by the guys that come in to replace them. But we have to take an honest look at UGA here and with the crazy amount of former four and five-star players that are rising up, things will likely be just fine for the Bulldogs on that side of the ball.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Redshirt junior place kicker Rodrigo Blankenship is returning and he might be the best kicker in the SEC. He made 20 of 23 field goals last year and should only get better. UGA will have to find a new punter after the graduation of Cameron Nizialek but their level of recruiting tells me they’ll be more than okay at that position.

Receiver Mecole Hardman is the primary return man and he’s shifty and fast. He’s not the best returner in America by any means but he’s good enough to get the job done effectively.

KEYS TO THE GAME

I want to say that this is the Georgia game and weird stuff always happens between UGA and UT, so it could be a toss up for who wins. I WANT to say that, but I can’t because I’m genuinely not sure there’s much that Tennessee can do to best Georgia this year. I hate how much positive stuff I have to say about Kirby Smart’s team but the fact is, they’re a great squad.

Thanks to the mess that Butch Jones left behind, Jeremy Pruitt will be hard pressed to get his players in good enough shape to effectively hang with Georgia in Athens.

If the Vols can be mostly healthy by week 5 and put up a phenomenal fight, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, maybe, just maybe, they can put themselves in a spot to beat UGA.

Depending on how well new OC Tyson Helton re-shapes the Vols’ offense, UT should be able to put up more than zero points on UGA this season but it will take the absolute best game Tennessee has to have a shot at winning against the Bulldogs.

By no means will it be impossible to beat Georgia. Smart’s squad could have serious growing pains with how many upperclassman leaders they have to replace and the Vols could bring their true “A” game and we could have ourselves an interesting matchup. But looking on paper, only Alabama will be a tougher game for UT this year and the difference between Bama and UGA isn’t that big.

Unfortunately, Georgia is simply way ahead in the team development race at the moment and it’s going to take a while for Pruitt and Co. to catch up. Perhaps under the right circumstances, this game will be close, but I wouldn’t expect a win against the Bulldogs until Tennessee gets back on more solid ground.