The Bulldogs themselves were quite impressive. The next CFP rankings won’t be released until Tuesday, but the reigning national champions are expected to regain the upper hand. No. 2 Ohio State also won Saturday, but much less impressively, 21-7 against a 1-7 Northwestern team.
Defeating the perceived No. 1 team in the nation, the Bulldogs addressed the committee’s main criticism – not enough quality wins over ranked teams. They were already ranked first in the Associated Press and USA Today opinion polls.
Georgia (9-0, 6-0 SEC) now has two top-10 wins, 49-3 over No. 8 Oregon and the 14-point win over No. 1 Tennessee (8-1, 4- 1) in the presence of a capacity crowd of 92,746. They, along with the CBS national television audience, know full well that the Vols’ lone touchdown came with 4:15 to go.
“In our locker room right now, it doesn’t matter too much to us,” cornerback Kelee Ringo said, with Georgia possibly returning to No. 1. “Because obviously we have a lot more to prove.”
The Bulldogs’ win — was their sixth straight over the Vols — takes them 9-0 for the second straight season and 6-0 in SEC play. With him, the odds improve for Georgia to make its fifth appearance in six years as the SEC Smart East Division champion. But there are still matters to be settled.
The Bulldogs’ last two SEC games are on the road, Saturday at Mississippi State (7 p.m.) and then Nov. 19 at Kentucky. But thanks to Saturday’s win, Georgia would need to lose twice for the Vols to prevail and retake the East.
The Bulldogs were content – perhaps too much – to bleed the clock in a fourth quarter downpour. Georgia used the final 4:52 of the first half with a long drive that culminated in a halftime field goal. Recovering the ball from the Vols in the third quarter, the Bulldogs again kept it for 8:44, again settling for a basket. But the two possessions effectively eliminated any remaining hope Tennessee had for a comeback.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett outshot Tennessee Heisman Trophy contender Hendon Hooker with 257 yards and two touchdowns on 17 of 24 passes. Bennett threw for nine different receivers, including second Ladd McConkey, who led all wide with five catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Bennett also scored on a 13-yard run.
“We think we have a really good offense as well,” Bennett said.
Says McConkey: “We definitely did it (wanted to prove something). They are a hell of an offense. They posted crazy numbers. Being able to move and perform and do the things that we did was great.
Tennessee, who averaged 553 yards, could barely manage half that. The Vols finished with 289 yards, including 102 in the fourth quarter. Hooker had just 160 passing yards and no touchdowns, and Georgia sacked him six times. Coming in with 54 plays of 20 or more yards, the Vols had a Saturday, and it came after dropping three points late in the fourth quarter. Tennessee scored its only TD with 4:15 left.
“Obviously disappointed with the outcome of the game,” Tennessee second-year coach Josh Heupel said. Credit to Georgia. They won critical games.
The Bulldogs reminded the committee and the CBS national television audience that defense, indeed, still matters. They entered the game leading the nation with the fewest points allowed, at 10.5 per game. The 2021 National Championship defense gave up just 10.2 per game. Tennessee led the nation with an average of 49.4 points.
Safety Malaki Starks led the Bulldogs with 10 tackles, Ringo and fellow defensive back Javon Bullard had seven apiece, and junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter had one sack, two tackles for loss and four total saves.
Georgia also had strong special teams play, with a 75-yard punt that was downed at Tennessee 1 playing a big part.
“We’ve been playing complementary football here for a long time,” Smart said. “I think that’s the way to play football.
Saturday’s game of the two highest-seeded teams to meet at Sanford Stadium certainly didn’t start the way the Bulldogs had hoped. They turned the ball over on their first possession, running back Daijun Edwards fumbling and Tennessee safety Tamarion McDonald recovering at Georgia 49.
But as throughout the first half, the Bulldogs defense held firm. The Vols’ high-flying, fast-paced offense could only manage 14 yards and had to settle for a 49-yard field goal from Chase McGrath.
It quickly became all of Georgia after that. Behind an explosive passing game displayed by Bennett, the Bulldogs recorded three touchdowns before Tennessee earned another field goal.
The first came after Bennett’s 53-yard completion to clear away Arian Smith set them up deep in Tennessee territory. Four plays later, Bennett found himself under pressure on a passing play. Avoiding the rush, Bennett found space outside the right end and scored with a dive into the pylon which, strangely, was first judged short of the goal line. The video review awarded Bennett all six points, and Georgia quickly took a 7-3 lead.
Bennett would pass for the Bulldogs’ next two touchdowns on a 37-yard pass to McConkey and a 5-yard strike to Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint on third down. The latter was just one of the first examples of the incredible skill with which Bennett and the Bulldogs converted third downs. They were 3 out of 5 in the first half and 6 out of 9 for the three quarters.
During the same period, the Vols were 1 for 9 on football money. For three quarters, Tennessee had not recorded a play of 20 yards or more. He entered the game with 54 such games.
It was dictated by a Georgia defense that was playing without senior outside linebacker Nolan Smith and lost replacement Robert Beal just 40 seconds into the second half. More importantly, the Bulldogs had Carter.
Carter had missed three games in four weeks with a sprained knee before returning for a limited third down against Florida. Against Tennessee, Carter played just about every down. Hooker lost the fumble when he was tagged by Carter in the end zone late in the first quarter. But Tennessee goaltender Javontez Spraggins collected the ball in the end zone only to be dropped again, this time by Nazir Stackhouse.
It looked like a safety for the Bulldogs, but video review concluded the ball was out of the end zone when he fumbled it just at the goal line.
Seemingly important at the time, it really wasn’t. Bennett simply hit McConkey with a midfield strike on Georgia’s 37 first down.
“We all love Jalen’s comeback,” Stackhouse said. “He brings a lot of energy to the crew, a lot of tenacity. For him to go out there and impact the game like that was something we’ve all been waiting for, because he’s Jalen Carter.
And so, the rout was on.
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