Defending national champion Georgia had been viewed as the top team in college football this season, but Tennessee has flipped the script.
When the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season were released on Tuesday night, the Volunteers were No. 1 while the Bulldogs were No. 3, creating even more drama for their big Southeastern Conference matchup on Saturday at Athens, Ga.
It’s the latest sign that Tennessee (8-0, 4-0 SEC) is a bona fide national championship contender in Josh Heupel’s second year as coach.
“I don’t know that we placed a timeframe on it,” Heupel said on ESPN after the rankings were unveiled. “I think that is one of the things that had our players buy into what we’re doing. We never set a ceiling. …
“There’s a long way to go. We obviously have a huge step this week in Athens, Georgia, but I love competing with this team every Saturday.”
Georgia (8-0, 5-0) also is behind Ohio State in the initial CFP rankings.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart never overlooks information when it comes to motivational speeches, so the current pecking order certainly will be mentioned leading into the showdown.
Georgia has won the past five meetings entering a contest featuring two of the strongest offenses in the nation.
The Volunteers lead the nation in scoring offense (49.4 points per game) and total offense (553.0 yards per game), while Georgia ranks second in total offense (530.1) and is tied for sixth in scoring (41.8).
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker has become a leading Heisman Trophy candidate by throwing for 2,338 yards with 21 touchdowns and just one interception. Big-play receiver Jalin Hyatt has 45 receptions for 907 yards and a nation-leading 14 touchdown catches.
Smart said Hooker is vastly improved over the quarterback the Bulldogs saw during a 41-17 victory in Knoxville last season.
“He’s one step ahead of where he was,” Smart said of Hooker. “To think of the reps and the games he’s played since the games last year, he’s just as elusive, he’s got probably the same arm talent. Those two don’t improve. It’s his decision-making and his processing. And the guys around him are playing better, too.”
Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett has passed for 2,349 yards with nine touchdowns and three interceptions. He has a 22-3 career record as a starter.
Receiver Ladd McConkey (33 receptions, 413 yards, 2 TDs) and tight end Brock Bowers (31 catches, 547 yards, 3 TDs) are solid players. Bowers had five receptions for a career-high 154 yards and a touchdown last Saturday in the Bulldogs’ 42-20 win over Florida.
Defense is where there is a pronounced difference between the clubs.
Georgia ranks second in scoring defense (10.5) and fourth in total defense (262.6), while the Volunteers are tied for 26th in scoring defense (21.0) and are 82nd in total defense (393.6).
The Bulldogs remained sturdy on defense despite the loss of five NFL first-round picks and eight overall draftees from last season’s unit.
Smart doesn’t understand why outsiders expected a defensive drop-off this season.
“It is not like just because you lose good players, it does not mean you are not going to be good the next year,” Smart said. “Maybe that is an expectation that some teams have, but that is not the expectation of any team I have ever been a part of. The expectation is that you are going to be good because you recruit good players and because you coach hard.”
Hooker surely isn’t expecting an easy time against the Georgia defense.
“The effort and attitude and toughness that they bring to the game is immaculate, and that’s what SEC football is about,” Hooker said. “This is the top brand of football.”
The Bulldogs received a blow on Tuesday when Smart said standout outside linebacker Nolan Smith would miss the remainder of the season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Smith will undergo surgery.
–Field Level Media