No. 3 Georgia beat No. 14 Tennessee 44-21 on Saturday in a game that often felt like Georgia's biggest opponent was Georgia. That's the best way to explain a game in which the Bulldogs trailed 21-17 at halftime but made all the necessary second-half adjustments and outscored the Volunteers 27-0 over the final 30 minutes to claim victory.
Things started poorly for the Bulldogs when a bad snap on the opening possession of the game sailed over quarterback Stetson Bennett's head and didn't stop rolling until it had traveled 25 yards to the goal line. Once there, Bennett tried to swat it away from Tennessee defenders, but his efforts were futile as Kivon Bennett fell on the ball for a touchdown and an early 7-0 Tennessee lead.
It was exactly the kind of break Tennessee would need to pull off an upset, and it wasn't the last break Tennessee would get. Twice the Bulldogs were stuffed on a fourth-and-1, including once at the goalline just before halftime. One led to an immediate touchdown and the Vols actually led the game 21-17 at halftime.
But then the second half started and Tennessee's luck ran out.
Georgia had held Tennessee to 143 yards of offense in the first half, and had it not been for the bad snap and Tennessee's defense making big stops, the Vols likely would have been out of the game early. Unfortunately for Tennessee, reality caught up quickly in the third quarter when Jarrett Guarantano turned the ball over on each of the team's first two second-half possessions. Again the Tennessee defense came through, holding Georgia to a couple field goals, but Tennessee never scored another point.
Instead, Georgia won comfortably, even if the game never felt like the blowout the score reflects. Here are my four biggest takeaways after the Bulldogs took over sole possession of first place in the SEC East.
1. Georgia's defense might be best in the country
I know we live in an age where offense dominates the sport. Still, suppose you want to look at it from a value-over-replacement level kind of situation that we see in baseball. In that case, the gap between Georgia's defense and the average defense is miles wider than one between the best offense and an average offense. It's a beast, plain and simple. The Dawgs defense held Tennessee to 214 yards on the day and 3.4 yards per play. What was even more impressive was that Tennessee finished the day with -1 yard rushing. Sure, a lot of that was due to five sacks, but even if we remove the sack yardage, the Vols still managed only 45 rushing yards on 22 carries.
What might have been most impressive was the way the unit took over the second half. Georgia's defense held Tennessee to 71 yards in the second half on 39 plays and forced five turnovers. It also did a tremendous job getting off the field as the Vols could only convert three of their 13 third and fourth-down attempts.
Week in and week out, this defense will keep Georgia in any game it plays. If the Bulldogs do win the SEC and get to the playoff, it'll be because this defense led them there.
2. Georgia offense needs work
It's improving, but it's not a finished product. Stetson Bennett is not the difference-maker I believe JT Daniels can be if he gets a shot at the job, but he's been very effective in the same kind of role that Jake Fromm filled. Bennett finished the game with 238 yards passing as he completed 16 of his 27 attempts and, most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over. Though there were a few close calls! Still, Bennett seems to have that knack for making a play when his offense needs him to and can extend drives.
He didn't get much help from the run game today, either. Georgia rushed for 193 yards but needed 50 carries to get there. Zamir White was held to 50 yards on 22 carries after a breakout performance against Auburn last week. It was Kendall Milton who led Georgia in rushing with 56 yards on eight carries. The Tennessee defense deserves plenty of credit for taking it away.
As for the receivers, while George Pickens gets the headliner status, Kearis Jackson is becoming Bennett's go-to. He finished the day with 91 yards on four receptions and led the team with seven targets.
3. Tennessee won't ascend until QB improves
This Vols are improving, and if you're a Tennessee fan, you've seen reason for optimism going forward. Even if the idea the team was ready to compete with the elite of the SEC was put to rest in Athens, this defense appears legit.
The offense could use some work. In my mind, Tennessee is in a similar position to where Texas A&M is in the SEC West. The roster is more talented and things are trending in the right direction, but the Vols need a difference-maker at the QB position before they take that final step. Jarrett Guarantano looked like he could be that guy in the first half, completing 11 of his 13 passes for two touchdowns. But he was horrific in the second half as a turnover machine. He fumbled three times and threw a pick, and it killed any chance that Tennessee had of pulling off this upset.
The chance to pull it off was there. The fact they had the lead at halftime despite not playing particularly well was something they couldn't take advantage of as Guarantano quite literally gave the game away.
4. Kirby's fourth-down decisions were correct
Kirby Smart has been questioned for plenty of his fourth-down decisions during his time at Georgia, but even if his two big decisions on Saturday didn't work, they were the right call. The decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in his own territory during the second quarter didn't work as Stetson Bennett was stopped short on a QB sneak. Tennessee scored a play later to take the lead. It was a risky decision, but one I don't mind making if I have Georgia's defense. Tennessee just made two plays, and you tip your cap.
Then there was the decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line just before halftime. Zamir White was stopped short, but again, it was the right call. A touchdown gives you the lead at halftime and crushes Tennessee's confidence. You're still trailing if you kick a field goal.
The only time any team should kick a field goal from the 1-yard line is when it's the final play of the game, and it will either give you the lead or tie.
5. Georgia has reinvented the fullback position
Fullbacks weigh 300 pounds now and play both ways.
Seriously, though, shout out to Tennessee's Jeremy Banks for showing absolutely no fear and selling out to try to stop Carter at the goal line. A lot of guys wouldn't do that.