By Rhiannon Potkey
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker has had his sights set on a big game in Georgia since the start of the season. It’s been on his mind throughout all the hours of training, film study and practice.
To achieve that vision, the Vols will need to win another big game in Georgia first.
In a monster showdown with widespread title implications, Tennessee (8-0, 4-0), ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff standings and No. 2 by The Associated Press, visits No. 1 (AP) Georgia (8-0, 5-0) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (CBS) at Sanford Stadium in Athens.
The rivalry between the Vols and the defending national champion Dawgs has never had this much at stake.
Not only is the SEC East title on the line, but the winner will likely secure a spot in the College Football Playoff. Even the loser could stay in the hunt for a CFP bid given the strength of the SEC.
“Our goal is to be playing in Atlanta at the end of the season,” Hooker says, referring to the SEC Championship game. “Every day we come in, it’s another day at the office. The same way a mailman goes and delivers the mail, the same way we go into the football facility.”
The hype for the UT-Georgia game has been building for weeks, ever since the Vols dispatched Alabama and proved their worth as national title contenders to any remaining skeptics.
The Vols elevated to a tie with Ohio State for No. 2 in the Associated Press poll this week after a 44-6 thrashing of Kentucky. It’s their highest ranking since Dec. 2, 2001.
Saturday’s game will be the first 1-2 matchup in Sanford Stadium history, and only the second time UT has been involved in an AP No. 1 vs. No. 2 game (1999 Fiesta Bowl vs. Florida State).
It’s the first time in the history of the series that the rivals will meet as AP top-five ranked teams, and ESPN’s “College GameDay” and “SEC Nation” will be on-site for a Vols game once again.
“These are the types of games you come to Tennessee to play because you want to be on this type of stage,” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel says. “You want to play in front of an audience that is going to be captivated by these two football teams.”
The game within the game is Georgia’s stout defense versus UT’s prolific offense.
Tennessee is ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring (49.4) and total offense (553.0 yards). The Vols have scored at least 30 points in a school-record 11 straight games and converted 43 of their 45 red zone trips, including 36 for touchdowns.
Hooker’s favorite target has been Jalin Hyatt, who is in the midst of a breakout season. The junior wide receiver caught two more touchdown passes Saturday to break the single-season school record with 14, which leads the nation. In the last four games, Hyatt has 11 touchdowns and 582 yards receiving.
Georgia is ranked second nationally in scoring defense, giving up just 10.5 points per game after leading the nation in 2021 (10.2) during the national title run.
“They’re athletic. They can run on all three levels. They’re physical on all three levels. They don’t have any busts,” Heupel says of UGA’s defense. “They play their assignments extremely well. They make you earn it. It’s a great test for us.”
No team has found a way to slow Tennessee’s offense this season. Georgia was able to do it last season in a 41-17 win, but head coach Kirby Smart knows how much the Vols have improved since that meeting.
“That will be an age-old question defensive coordinators try to figure out. We are all searching,” Smart told reporters. “There is no way, let’s be honest. You can two-huddle, three-huddle, shotgun huddle, go on air, but they do it, and they do it well. It is really hard to simulate.”
For as much attention as UT’s offense and Georgia’s defense receive, the other side of the ball has been performing well for both squads as well.
Led by redshirt senior quarterback Stetson Bennett and standout tight end Brock Bowers, Georgia is averaging 41.8 points per game, which ranks sixth nationally. The Dawgs are 46 of 47 in the red zone with 33 touchdowns and 13 field goals.
Tennessee’s defense shined last weekend against Kentucky. The Vols recorded three interceptions and held the Wildcats to just 98 yards passing. Defensive back Doneiko Slaughter showcased his versatility in moving from safety to corner, making a big hit that caused an interception and intercepting a pass of his own.
The lockdown effort didn’t surprise Hooker.
“I see the defensive guys putting in extra work, whether it’s getting on the Jugs [machine], which you can see these guys making great plays on the ball and coming out and playing with their hair on fire,” Hooker says. “I’m extremely proud of them, and to compete against them every day, it’s a heated battle on that practice field.”
The Vols are getting healthier and gaining more depth as they prepare for the biggest challenge of the season. Wide receiver Cedric Tillman (ankle injury) and defensive back Jaylen McCullough (legal issues) returned against Kentucky.
Playing in a hostile environment is nothing new for Tennessee. Georgia will be the third ranked opponent the Vols have faced on the road this season.
The stakes keep getting higher for the Vols in a special season few saw coming. Once the final whistle blows, one team will be tagged with its first loss and likely see any SEC title hopes go up in smoke.
“Really excited to go down there and play,” UT senior offensive lineman Jerome Carvin says. “All the guys are ready to rock and roll.”