The Bulldogs themselves were quite impressive. The next CFP rankings won’t be released until Tuesday, but the defending national champions should be back on top again. No. 2 Ohio State also won Saturday, but in much less impressive fashion, 21-7 over a 1-7 team from Northwestern.
Beating the perceived No. 1 team in the land, the Bulldogs answered the committee’s chief criticism – not enough quality wins over ranked teams. They already were ranked first by 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 victory over No. 1 Tennessee (8-1, 4-1) witnessed by a capacity crowd of 92,746. They, along with the CBS national TV audience, know full well that the Vols’ only touchdown came with 4:15 to play.
“In our locker room right now, it doesn’t matter too much to us,” cornerback Kelee Ringo said Georgia possibly moving back to No. 1. “Because, obviously, we have much more to prove.”
The Bulldogs’ win — was their sixth in a row over the Vols — gets them to 9-0 for the second consecutive season, and 6-0 in SEC play. With it, odds improve for Georgia to make its fifth appearance in the past six years as the SEC Eastern Division champions Smart. But there remains business to attend to.
The Bulldogs’ last two SEC games are on the road, on Saturday at Mississippi State (7 p.m.) and then Nov. 19 at Kentucky. But thanks to Saturday’s victory, Georgia would have to lose twice for the Vols to win out and reclaim the East.
The Bulldogs were content — perhaps too much so — to bleed out the clock during a driving downpour in the fourth quarter. Georgia used up the final 4:52 of the first half with a long drive that resulted in a chip-shot field goal at the halftime buzzer. Getting the ball back from the Vols in the third quarter, the Bulldogs again held onto it for 8:44, again settling for a field goal. But the two possessions effectively squeezed out any remaining hope Tennessee had for mounting a comeback.
Quarterback Stetson Bennett outshined Tennessee’s Heisman Trophy candidate Hendon Hooker, with 257 yards and two touchdowns on 17-of-24 passing. Bennett completed throws to nine different receivers, including sophomore Ladd McConkey, who led all wideouts with five catches for 94 yards and a touchdown. Bennett also scored on a 13-yard run.
“We think we have a pretty good offense, too,” Bennett said.
Said McConkey: “We definitely did (wanted to prove something). They’re one heck of an offense. They’ve been putting up crazy numbers. To be able to go about and execute and do the things we did was great.”
Tennessee, which came in averaging 553 yards, could barely manage half that. The Vols finished with 289 yards, 102 of which came in the fourth quarter. Hooker had only 160 yards passing and no touchdowns, and Georgia sacked him six times. Coming in with 54 plays of 20 or more yards, the Vols had one Saturday, and it came after they were down by three scores late in the fourth quarter. Tennessee scored its only TD with 4:15 to play.
“Obviously disappointed in the outcome of the game,” said Tennessee’s second-year coach Josh Heupel. Credit to Georgia. They won the critical plays.”
The Bulldogs reminded the committee and CBS’ national TV audience that defense, indeed, still matters. They entered the game leading the nation in fewest points allowed, at 10.5 per game. The 2021 national championship defense gave up only 10.2 per game. Tennessee was leading the nation with a 49.4 scoring average.
Safety Malaki Starks led the Bulldogs with 10 tackles, Ringo and fellow defensive back Javon Bullard had seven each and junior defensive tackle Jalen Carter had a sack, two tackles for loss and four stops overall.
Georgia also had solid special-teams play, with a 75-yard punt that was downed at the Tennessee 1 playing a big role.
“We’ve been playing complementary football around here for a long time,” Smart said. “I think that’s the way you should play football.
Saturday’s matchup of the two highest-ranked teams ever to meet in Sanford Stadium certainly didn’t get started the way the Bulldogs had hoped. They turned the ball over on their opening possession, with running back Daijun Edwards fumbling and Tennessee safety Tamarion McDonald recovering at the Georgia 49.
But as it did throughout the first half, the Bulldogs’ defense stood tall. The Vols’ high-flying, quick-tempo offense could manage only 14 yards and had to settle for a 49-yard Chase McGrath field goal.
It quickly became all Georgia after that. Behind an explosive passing game displayed by Bennett, the Bulldogs recorded three touchdown drives before Tennessee would get another field goal.
The first one came after Bennett’s 53-yard completion to wideout Arian Smith set them up deep in Tennessee territory. Four plays later, Bennett found himself under pressure on a pass play. Evading the rush, Bennett found room outside right end and scored with a dive into the pylon that, strangely, initially was ruled short of the goal line. Video review awarded Bennett with the six points, and Georgia was quickly ahead 7-3.
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 only an early example of the incredible proficiency with which Bennett and the Bulldogs converted third downs. They were 3-of-5 in the first half and 6-of-9 through three quarters.
Through the same span of time, the Vols were 1-for-9 on football’s money down. Through three quarters, Tennessee had recorded zero plays of 20 or more yards. It entered the game with 54 such plays.
That was dictated by a Georgia defense that was playing without senior outside linebacker Nolan Smith and lost his replacement Robert Beal only 40 seconds into the second half. More important, though, the Bulldogs did have Carter.
Carter had missed three games over four weeks with a sprained knee before returning for limited, third-down duty against Florida. Against Tennessee, Carter played pretty much every down. Hooker lost the fumble when hit by Carter in the end zone late in the first quarter. But Tennessee guard Javontez Spraggins picked up 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 ruled the ball to have been out of the end zone when he fumbled it right at the goal line.
Seemingly important at the time, it really wasn’t. Bennett simply hit McConkey with a strike down the middle of the field on first down from Georgia’s 37.
“We all love that Jalen’s back,” Stackhouse said. “He brings a lot of energy to the crew, a lot of toughness. For him to go out there and impact the game like that was something we were all expecting, because he’s Jalen Carter.
And so, the rout was on.