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Front Page - Friday, November 12, 2021

Vols welcome alumni, high-riding Dawgs for biggest game

Tennessee’s high-flying offense will need its best game of the seaon when the Vols entertain top-ranked Georgia Saturday. - Photo by Jerry Denham |The Ledger

Most football programs schedule a downtrodden opponent for their homecoming game to celebrate an easy win. Tennessee went in the exact opposite direction this season.

The Vols (5-4, 3-3) are hosting No. 1 Georgia (9-0, 7-0) in an SEC East showdown that is attracting national media attention. The 51st meeting between the programs is the SEC on CBS game of the week at 2:30 CST, and SEC Nation will be broadcasting on-site in Knoxville.

It pits Tennessee’s explosive offense versus Georgia’s stingy defense.

The Vols lead the nation in offensive plays per minute at 2.92 and are averaging 38.2 points per game. Their 344 points have already eclipsed the final point total from the four previous seasons with at least three games still remaining.

Georgia leads the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 6.6 points per game, and is second in the country in total defense (230.2 yards per game). The Bulldog defense has allowed just five touchdowns, and opponents have scored just 59 points total through nine games.

“Huge test for us and one that we are very excited about,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel says. “Great to be back home, been a long time since we’ve gotten a chance to play inside Neyland Stadium.”

The Vols returned from their bye week last weekend with a wild 45-42 road win over Kentucky. The Wildcats dominated time of possession 46:08 to 13:52, but UT’s offense demoralized the Kentucky defense with big strikes. The Vols averaged 9.81 yards per play, including touchdown passes of 75 and 72 yards in the first quarter.

It moved UT one victory closer to bowl eligibility with three regular-season games remaining. The Vols play Georgia, South Alabama and Vanderbilt all at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee announced last week it would not self-impose a postseason bowl ban after completing an internal investigation into alleged recruiting violations that led to the firing of coach Jeremy Pruitt and nine others in January.

The UT administration said it felt it would be unfair to punish the current athletes in the program for transgressions they had nothing to do with.

The NCAA has yet to make a final ruling on UT’s case and could still institute its own penalties in the future.

“I’ve said it from the time that I’ve gotten here, really believe that this was just going to be a speed bump for our program,” Heupel explains. “Kids that are here, and kids that we recruit are going to have a chance to go continue to compete for championships and I fully believe that.”

Given all the upheaval within the program and transfers that fled, the rapid rebuild under Heupel has elicited widespread praise.

The Vols have become appointment viewing for many because of their offensive theatrics and energetic style.

The pace of the UT offense has Georgia on high alert.

“It’s so fast. You can’t really simulate that in your practices,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart acknowledges. “It’s so different that it is hard to prepare for. You can’t simulate it with your team unless you do it.

“We don’t do it as well as they do it, so it makes it tough to prepare for. Your players really have to buy in, they have to know it’s important to play that way against that tempo and you’ve got to work really hard at it.”

Georgia’s defense is building a case for one of the best in history with multiple high-level recruits at every spot.

“It starts with their personnel. They’re big, long, physical, athletic. They play with speed,” Heupel says. “They do a great job of retracing on perimeter screens. You see that show up, when you think you got space it closes down pretty quick.

“I don’t care if that’s in the core or out on the perimeter. They’re able to rotate a lot of guys, too. The depth of their football team is a big part of their success.”

UT senior offensive lineman Jerome Carvin knows the Vols will have their hands full trying to block a UGA front that includes defensive tackle Jordan Davis, a potential Heisman candidate and top NFL draft pick.

“We have to play all five of us as one, this week especially,” Carvin says. “As a whole defense they are good, and we need to be locked in and focused for this game. We cannot have mental errors or mess ups. This is a big ballgame for us.”

UT’s players have talked constantly about the culture change under Heupel, and the freedom they feel to have more fun. That vibe was on display against Kentucky when senior cornerback Alontae Taylor returned an interception 56 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.

After reaching the end zone, Taylor did a little shimmy and then skied for a body bump with Heupel as he came off the field.

“I think it’s important that you celebrate great moments with them,” Heupel notes. “(If) you want your kids to play with great energy and passion as a coaching staff, then you better have that too and enjoy those moments.”

The Vols are hoping for many more against Georgia. Although they are huge underdogs by most standards, they’re embracing the challenge of trying to upset the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.

“It is exciting, man,” Taylor says. “It is another week though. It is still football at the end of the day. It does not matter what number is beside their name. At the end of the day, it is who is going to go out there and play 60 minutes the hardest and execute at the highest level.”