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3 Things That Worry Me About Tennessee

We didn’t contain the last good run team, and we’re about to see one of the nation’s best. Complacency is an issue, so are cigar-smoking goalpost-toting checkered overalls. It’s the next to last time we can tell Gary to shut up. And we only have everything to lose. What, me worry?  

Capital One Orange Bowl - Clemson v Tennessee
Hang on central Florida, we’re trying to get there!
Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Here is what I’m NOT worried about as Georgia invades Rocky Top:

1. Pollution. The goalposts at Neyland famously made their way into the Tennessee River last season after Alabama quit covering deep routes when visiting the Volunteers. It was a big game for big urnge, the first time they beat Saban in well over a decade. The fan base reacted as expected: whose only outlet for celebration was vandalizing their own facility and involuntarily fueling a guerilla campaign in Central America by consuming too many bad cigars. It also placed UT as the #1 team in the next CFP rankings. Until they traveled south to Athens for a quick reality check.

This game is arguably bigger. Only because it’s us. And we’re the king of the mountain, two times over and best positioned to 3-peat. And freshly minted as #1 so knocking us off would be quite the achievement (see: October 2022). But after having to pony up their hard-earned drive-thru tips to buy the school new goalposts, I think they might exercise some discretion if they happen to get a win. Then again, I don’t know that Tennessee fans incorporate discretion into their decision-making Venn diagrams.

2. For the 3rd week in a row, we’re facing a potent SEC offense but a team that is undisciplined and incurs a lot of penalties. Tennessee might be the worst of the lot – they’re dead last in penalties and penalty yards per game in the SEC (and bottom 10 in the nation).

And somehow they’re worse at home, averaging 9 flags for over 78 yards in Neyland Stadium. UT is markedly worse against SEC teams, and also worse when playing teams with winning records. So they’re playing Saturday afternoon at home, against their SEC foe Georgia, who happens to be undefeated. I like the maths.

3. They are a frontrunner. For all the talk about the vaunted Tennessee running game, they’re not near as effective when the scoreboard isn’t in their favor. This is similar for most teams, but the Vols are a run-first offense. Joe Milton is just not as effective unless they have the rushing threat to keep opponents honest.

UT runs almost 38 times a game. They are remarkably balanced across all four quarters in their rushing attempts as well. And though they are a top 10 rushing attack nationally, they aren’t invincible. Four times in 2023 they have been held to less than 5 yards per carry, and they lost 3 of them (the 4th was Texas A&M, in which they rushed 49 freakin’ times for 232 yards but no scores). So the blueprint is there; Alabama held them to 133 yards, Florida held them to 100 yards, and they only managed 83 yards on the ground against Missouri last week. You know who has the #1 SEC rushing defense and #11 nationally? Your Georgia Bulldogs. We play to our strength, they’re forced to rely on Joe Milton, and we’re in pretty good shape.

Now forgive me, as I was weaned at the nipple of Larry Munson’s scratch. So here’s what does worry me about facing Coach Hamwise GamCheese:

1. They are a different team at home. Tennessee is averaging 39 points in Knoxville and 485 yards a game. Contrast this with 25 points away from Neyland, though still a robust 424 yards. Apparently, they can only score touchdowns with a checkerboard end zone scheme. It happens they will have that very thing Saturday afternoon. That fact might be tempered considering the 2023 home slate has been Virginia, Austin Peay, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and UConn.

But let’s not count on that. The crowd will be rowdy, and you know they’ve had this game circled. It wouldn’t surprise me if Volunteer Head Coach Josh Heupel had a “Beat Georgia” portion of practice all year. The ‘Dawg defense is only allowing 20 points a game away from Athens, essentially half of what Tennessee is scoring. The road sample size is small for the ‘Dawgs, including only Auburn, Vanderbilt, and Florida (coincidentally, each team scored exactly 20 points) – none of which are things to hang your hat on.

2. We have to get to 3rd down. Georgia is the best in college football at converting 3rd downs on offense, and 7th best in preventing conversions on defense. Volunteer quarterback Joe Milton is only converting 34% of 3rd down passing attempts into first downs; and only 62% when he actually completes the pass (for comparison, Beck is moving the chains 45% of the times he passes on 3rd down, and 70% on completed passes).

Milton has a 165 QBR on 1st down, by far his best down and distance. And in the initial 30 minutes of a game, his QBR is 30 points higher and he has 50% more explosive passing plays. They aren’t running the hyper-tempo of 2022, but they like to line up and push the ball early. If we can contain the run, spy Milton, and cover what is a considerably less dangerous WR corps than last season (Bru McCoy is still out), we can get the Volunteers into 3rd downs where they don’t historically execute. The problem is achieving those things, from a defense that seems to need at least 15 minutes to get their feet under them.

3. Complacency. Georgia supplanted Ohio State in the College Football Playoff rankings in the top spot Tuesday, is still riding a school and SEC record as the #1 in the AP poll, a 27-game winning streak, a 26 regular season SEC games streak, and something like 13-1 over the last 14 ranked opponents (of which UT is another).

If you thought UGA was the recipient of praise earlier in the 2023 season, then I don’t know what you call the general feeling this week. Analysts are fawning all over the Bulldogs, citing the complete team performance while dismantling Ole Miss. These are young men, they are not immune to buying what is being sold to you. And this is a dangerous game against a dangerous team in front of a dangerous crowd. Macondawg already told you that head coach Kirby Smart wasn’t happy with the team’s practice. All those streaks, and a chance at continuing this most glorious of runs, can come crashing down. Humility is only a game away.

Call me crazy, just don’t call me late for dinner. Sound off in the comments below what worries you about the Bulldogs of Georgia visiting the Volunteers of Tennessee. And as always…