It was bad, but Tennessee football should learn from being dismantled by Georgia | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

ATHENS, Ga. – A glum trip home for Tennessee football started with a soggy, mandatory walk past Georgia’s students. They were still loud, still celebrating, singing the fight song, and – this won't soon be forgotten – still chanting “overrated” at the vanquished visitors passing to their tunnel and locker room.

Most coaches at Sanford Stadium don’t acknowledge that sea of red.

Josh Heupel, as we’re figuring out, is not most coaches.

Slowly walking off the field, Tennessee's coach faced it. He looked up. And took a few glances at the scene, mental-picture style, as he returned to address his Vols in a deflated locker room. Heupel’s message after the first loss of a wonderful season? “Be real about what happened tonight,” he said.

“As a program on the road, we've got to grow and be able to handle that in a much better way than we did tonight ... Learn from that, understand what that's going to be like here as we continue to grow as a program and have more of these opportunities to play in these types of ballgames.”

The main event of the college football season to date was supposed to be a close game. It wasn’t.

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Georgia was the big dog, bullying Tennessee to an extent that wasn’t reflected by the 27-13 final score. The Vols hadn't experienced anything like this in reaching the No. 1 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings.

To this point, the ride had been a Big Orange dream.

Saturday was an alarm clock.

It was a bright, flashing reminder that as easy as Tennessee (8-1, 4-1 SEC) has made this look during a return to national and SEC prominence, climbing all the way to the top isn't easy for anyone in college football. A rebuilding program usually has to learn what it takes through harsh – inevitable, yet necessary – lessons like this.

Tennessee head football coach Josh Heupel is seen on the sidelines during Tennessee's game against Georgia at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022.

It happened to Alabama. Nick Saban’s second team in Tuscaloosa went unbeaten before losing to Tim Tebow’s Florida in the 2008 SEC championship. A year later, the Crimson Tide beat the Gators (and Tebow) in the same game and went on to a national title.

It happened to Georgia. The Bulldogs (9-0, 6-0) were national runners-up in Kirby Smart’s second season, but prior to that, they were blown out 40-17 at Auburn in a November game that was a lot like the one just played in Athens. That Georgia team, while back in prime time, wasn’t quite ready yet. A few weeks later, it was. It beat Auburn in the SEC title game.

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And on an ear-splitting Saturday in northeast Georgia, it happened to Tennessee.

The Vols walked into a hornet’s nest and got stung. And shaken by that fact, looking quite average against a Georgia team better prepared – and just much better, period.

How did that happen? How did Georgia silence Heupel’s offense so easily? Here’s a hint: Go check the recruiting rankings from the past five years or so and look for Smart’s Georgia classes.

Yeah, I know, Alabama is there, too. But here's what Vols receiver Jalin Hyatt said of Georgia’s defense, “They are definitely physical. Way more physical than Alabama.” Understandable. Hyatt caught five touchdowns against Alabama. No one on Tennessee's team caught a TD pass against Georgia.

I’d have to think Smart and his staff benefited from having the tape of what Alabama’s defense failed to do. And I know the Bulldogs benefited greatly from playing in a stadium in rare form. I’ve been going to games at Sanford Stadium for two decades, and I asked others who have been, too: It was agreed that this place has never been as loud as Saturday.

It would have taken a near-perfect performance for Tennessee to win this game on this day.

The disappointment wasn't that it didn't happen. It was that the Vols weren’t anywhere close.

Georgia didn’t trick Tennessee or squeak by them. The Bulldogs simply whipped the Vols at most positions for most of the game, winning 1-on-1 battles in space and on both lines of scrimmage. Georgia covered receivers, pressured Hendon Hooker and kept Stetson Bennett so safe and clean that UGA’s former walk-on was airing it out like Aaron Rodgers for a spell in the first half.

Bennett had 226 passing yards at halftime. He then only threw four passes in the second half as Georgia slowly killed off the game.

Meanwhile, Hooker was sacked six times by Georgia and ended up limping off the field in the final minutes (he said he was fine). In Tennessee’s previous games combined, he’d been sacked 10 times.

“They played a great game,” Hooker said. “They came out and really executed what they wanted to execute. And we didn’t.”

This was bigger than just Tennessee's offense going silent. It was more about handling the moment, the spotlight, the crowd, the pressure of a No. 1 playoff ranking and an elite opponent that won it all last season and probably wasn’t thrilled about losing that top spot to a divisional rival without losing a game.

The Bulldogs were sharp. The Vols helped them. They committed five false starts – a season-high – in the first half alone, the final two consecutively, turning a third-and-2 into a third-and-12.  

“We did not play our cleanest, best football,” Heupel said. “Part of that was them. That's a really good football team, too. But there's things that we can control and be a whole lot better, too.”

With the Vols on ropes in the third quarter and obviously needing to throw to come back, rain symbolically started pouring at Sanford Stadium during a 15-play Georgia drive that scored a field goal, and more importantly, killed 8:44 off the clock.

Not your day, Tennessee.

It happens.

Afterward, me being the cheery columnist that I am, I tried to remind Heupel that the Vols’ biggest goal was still out there. He stopped me, saying the No. 1 goal was the SEC title and that “Getting to Atlanta is a whole lot tougher now, right?”

But hey, the Vols can still “get to Atlanta” with a semifinal playoff spot. That’s no longer entirely in their hands, of course. Can still happen for an 11-1 team, though, especially if Georgia wins out and takes the SEC, a result that seems a lot more likely now than it did before Saturday.

There is still a chance. That’s the good news on a night when there wasn’t much else for Tennessee.

“Our kids have handled a bunch of adversity throughout their careers and inside of this program,” Heupel said. “They've continued to fight and scratch and claw and be connected, come together. ... That's how we got to the point of making this a big football game.”

Reach Tennessean sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.