Perhaps the biggest thing working to the Tennessee football team’s advantage over the next two weekends is location.
The Vols end the regular season by hosting rivals Georgia and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium, where Tennessee (7-3, 3-3 SEC) is riding a 14-game winning streak.
The results away from Knoxville? The Vols would rather not think about that.
The No. 21 Vols are 6-7 in their last 13 true road games. Kentucky is the only true road win the Vols have this season.
Their latest road loss came last weekend at No. 11 Missouri. The Tigers beat the Vols 36-7, with Mizzou running back Cody Schrader becoming the first player in SEC history to rush for 200+ yards and have 100+ receiving yards in the same game.
The loss dropped the Vols’ record against ranked teams this season to 0-2.
Missouri’s victory over the Vols clinched the SEC East title for Georgia before the Bulldogs even took the field Saturday. Georgia will play Alabama in the SEC Championship game in Atlanta Dec. 2.
Tennessee’s other road losses this season came against rivals Florida and Alabama. While the loss to Alabama looks better as the Tide improve, the loss to Florida looks even worse as the Gators have proven to be a mediocre team.
Even with home field advantage, beating two-time defending national champion Georgia (10-0, 7-0) Saturday (2:30 CST, CBS) will be a tall task. The top-ranked Bulldogs have won six straight against Tennessee, including the last three in Knoxville by a cumulative score of 125-31. The most points the Vols have scored against the Bulldogs in those three meetings is 17.
“It is a huge test for us, and we have to have a great week of preparation to get ready for these guys,” UT head coach Josh Heupel says. “It’s the first time we have been back home for an SEC game inside Neyland Stadium in over a month. Looking forward to our fans, seeing them there on Saturday. We need a great atmosphere.”
Dawgs both bark and bite
Georgia has been gaining steam as the season progresses and regained a vital weapon last week in a 52-17 thrashing of No. 13 Ole Miss. Tight end Brock Bowers returned to the field after sitting out the previous two games with a high ankle sprain that required surgery.
Aside from bragging rights, the Vols have a chance to play potential spoiler for Georgia’s College Football Playoff hopes. The Vols saw how that felt last season on the road when South Carolina ended their dreams of a possible CFP bid with an upset.
As has been the case for the past few seasons, finding a weak link in the Georgia lineup is a challenging endeavor.
“They have really good players across the board,” Heupel says. “Defensively, thick, strong and athletic up front. They can run. They cover extremely well on the back end. They don’t miss tackles. You see them in close quarters and in open space, they tackle extremely well.
“Offensively, they’ve got dynamic playmakers,” he continues. “A few of those guys are just getting back and getting truly healthy right now, but the quarterback is playing extremely well.”
WR corps attrition
The Vols will be down another receiver for the remainder of the regular season. Dont’e Thornton was injured on a spectacular touchdown catch against Missouri. He will join Bru McCoy on the sideline.
“It’s a matter of trusting the next man up,” redshirt senior tight end Jacob Warren says. “In this game, there are going to be times when you’re going to be called upon, and there’s going to be an opportunity for a younger wide receiver or a guy with less experience to step up into that role. We have the utmost confidence that they’ll be able to do it because we know how to prepare, and we know how that room handles their business.”
Warren and his fellow seniors are down to their final two games at Neyland. They would love nothing more than to end on a 16-game home winning streak.
“I think people want the best for me and other guys in my position, the older guys on the team, the guys that are not going to be here next year,” he says. “Not that they do anything special or different, but there’s a sense of urgency that you want to have for those guys that are leaving the program. For myself as well, you have to capitalize on these next two weeks, because I’m not going to be able to play on that grass after this year. Why not go out the best I can?”
Dolly to rock Rocky Top
The Vols will have a global superstar in attendance as Tennessee native Dolly Parton is scheduled to attend the game. It will be the 12th consecutive sellout for UT and the final CBS broadcast in Neyland Stadium under the SEC’s current television contract.
Parton’s latest album, an out-and-out rock record titled “Rockstar,” released Friday and features the newly minted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer collaborating with artists such as Sting, Miley Cyrus, Pink, Elton John, Lizzo, and former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
Heupel says his mom will be excited about Parton being in the stadium as the Vols try to upset Georgia this weekend. Does it raise the stakes even more?
“Anytime Dolly’s hanging around it certainly adds pressure, absolutely, to our performance,” Heupel says. “For Tennesseans, that’s one that everybody will enjoy seeing.”