Georgia’s defense faces a tough test against Tennessee’s fast-paced offensive attack
Athens, Ga. — No. 1 Georgia (9-0, 7-0) will face it’s toughest challenge of the season on Saturday against Tennessee (5-4, 3-3) in Neyland Stadium.
The Volunteers have a high-powered offense that is coming off a 45-42 victory over Kentucky this past Saturday. Tennessee only had possession for 13:52 of the contest and was out-gained by 161 yards on offense. However, the Volunteers came away with the victory, which shows how impressive their offensive attack has been over the past few weeks.
“I think our guys are in great shape, we’ve worked really hard for the past three to four weeks,” Smart said on Tuesday when asked defending Tennessee. “We’ve taken periods and worked really hard anticipating this coming, kind of like you do when you have a triple option. So, we work periods into practice to work on our substitution patterns so that we can sub our players. That’s something that we constantly do. We did it in the off week. We’ve got a couple periods in each and every week to make sure we’re prepared for it.”
The Volunteers play a fast-paced offense that leads the nation with an average of 2.92 plays per minute. They also average 457.7 yards per game, which ranks 21st in the country. Tennessee is led by graduate transfer quarterback Hendon Hooker, who has completed 129-of-186 passes for 1,894 yard with 21 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2021.
Tennessee is averaging 38.2 points per game, which ranks No. 15 overall. The Volunteers have been able to push the ball downfield against opponents and score in a heartbeat. Even so, they have recently been able to move the ball more consistently on explosives since Hooker has taken over as the starter. The former Virginia Tech quarterback had touchdown passes of 75 and 72 yards against the Wildcats, respectively.
“Like I said, on Monday, there’s nothing you can really do to prepare for that kind of pace of play,” Smart said. “It’s almost impossible to simulate in terms of your practice. A lot of it is knowledge, understanding it, and we want our guys to be able to do that. We want our guys to be able to play fast and execute.”
The Volunteers are doing all of this under first-year head coach Josh Heupel, who had a lot of success at UCF over the course of the last few seasons. He was the architect of an offensive unit that ranked in the top-10 in points per game in each of his three years as the head coach of the Knights. It’s an offensive attack that Tennessee has been looking for since Lane Kiffin left the program in 2010.
Nonetheless, this isn’t the first time Smart or Georgia has faced him. Heupel was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Missouri in 2016-17. The Bulldogs won both of those contests, but Heupel’s offenses, led by quarterback Drew Lock, averaged 391.5 yards of total offense over that time span. His game plans are somewhat similar to those of Georgia offensive coordinator, Todd Monken.
“If you remember, we played Missouri with Heupel there, we had a couple of games against them and we’ve gone back and studied those tapes,” Smart said. “He’s evolved and he’s different in some ways and added more wrinkles. His wrinkles have come to his offense and he does a really good job of being aggressive and keeping the pressure on. In terms of how we get the scout team to run it - we’re very fortunate that we have an abundance of scouts.”
Georgia boasts the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, limiting opponents to 6.56 points per game. The Bulldogs also rank No. 2 overall nationally in team passing efficiency defense and rush defense, respectively.
On the other hand, Tennessee ranks No. 8 overall in team passing efficiency. Hooker has shown his ability to extend plays, especially through the air. So, it’s going to be interesting to see how each unit comes out, and who executes properly.
“They’re fast and you don't always get lined up properly,” Smart said. “It’s very unique. It’s like you ask the question, ‘how come you can’t stop the triple option?’ Well it’s different, you don’t face it everyday. They’ve got guys wide open because people have eye violations. They look at the wrong thing, sometimes they don’t even see the wide receiver. I know it’s hard to believe, but their splits are clear out on the sideline.”
Georgia‘s secondary will have to play without committing a lot of eye violations. It’s something that Smart and his coaching staff preach to their defensive backs. Earlier this season, South Carolina wide receiver Josh Vann was able to burn the Bulldogs’ secondary a couple of times throughout the game. That’s something that the Georgia defense doesn’t want to happen again.
The Volunteers’ trio of wide receivers in Venus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman and Javonta Jones have all combined for 16 scores via the air so far this season. Jones leads the Volunteers in receiving yards, but is tied with Tillman for receptions and touchdowns. All three have the ability to make plays on the perimeter, which is something that Georgia will have to limit.
“I’ve seen guys on tape not lined up, trying to get a call,” Smart said. “It happens to everybody. It’s not like it’s not on tape and it worries you that it could happen to you. You want to make them earn what they get. There's a lot of plays that they have gotten on people off busts. And you're trying to avoid that. They have done a tremendous job through the tempo of being explosive.”
Those Tennessee wideouts, including a few more, are going to try and stretch the field the best they can to create space against defenders. That could allow Hooker to find some of his wide receivers over the top and even underneath on routes. He showed flashes of excellence against Kentucky by complete both types of passing attempts.
The Bulldogs will have to combat that while also trying to stop Tennessee’s rushing attack. Regardless, it’s a system that Georgia’s defense is used to while defending the first-team offense during “good on good” drills.
“Make no mistake about it - they’re a tremendous run-game team,” Smart said. “They run the ball a crazy number of average yards per game. They wear you down, they wear you down, they wear you down. They’ve got a good number of backs, a physical O-line. It’s not an air-raid team, it’s a shot team and a pound you team. They spread you out. They make you declare defenders. They want you to declare is he in or is he out. At the end of the day, they make it hard to defend. It’s tough, you’ve got to have a good plan and you’ve got to execute the plan.”
Georgia and Tennessee are set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. EST.