When the Tennessee Volunteers last made the SEC Championship Game in 2007, they backed their way in. After a surprising 41-17 loss to Alabama, UT needed Florida to lose the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party a week later in order to secure its spot in Atlanta.
In 2016, Butch Jones and Tennessee are doing their best to leave no doubt.
After finally breaking their 11-year losing streak to the Gators a week ago, the Vols stunned Georgia, 34-31, on a Hail Mary from Joshua Dobbs to Jauan Jennings on the game’s final play.
Once again, the Volunteers fell into a hole early in the game. Down 10-0 midway through the second quarter, Dobbs found Jalen Hurd for what looked like an easy touchdown reception. Hurd appeared to relax just short of the goal line, though, allowing Deandre Baker to knock the ball loose prior to the score. UGA’s Aaron Davis fell on the ball to secure a touchback and rob the Vols of a score.
Sony Michel fumbled at the Volunteer goal line on the ensuing Georgia drive, but Jacob Eason fell on the ball in the end zone to get the touchdown anyway. UT had been uncanny at recovering fumbles on the season so far, but UGA grabbing those two loose balls marked a 14-point swing towards the Bulldogs. Tennessee trailed 17-0 after Eason’s recovery, but Dobbs’s passing and running accounted for 57 of the 61 yards of a touchdown drive to cut the deficit to 10 (17-7) at the half.
The Vols built on that momentum and scored a touchdown on the second half’s opening drive to make it a 17-14 game, and Georgia clung to a three-point lead (24-21) at the 3:43 mark in the fourth.
It was at that point that Tennessee pinned UGA at its own 6-yard line. After stuffing Brian Herrian for a one-yard loss on first down, the Volunteer defensive ends combined for a huge play. Derek Barnett blew through an attempted block from Jeb Blazevich to sack Eason, who displayed the judgment of a true freshman by doing a pump fake with a defender bearing down on him and his feet in the end zone. Eason robbed himself of time at the worst spot on the field. Barnett knocked the ball loose, and Corey Vereen pounced on it to give the Vols their first lead of the game at 28-24.
Tennessee seemed to salt the game away when Malik Foreman intercepted Eason on the third play of Georgia’s next drive, taking possession with just 2:10 on the clock. UT went three-and-out, however, and Kirby Smart preserved some time by using two of his three timeouts. Trevor Daniel put the Bulldogs back inside their own 20, but this thing was far from over.
Eason showed his five-star talent and carved up Tennessee’s prevent defense. He completed passes of 16, 11, and 12 yards, all of them into tight windows, to advance his team to midfield. After a false start and Smart burning his last timeout to avoid a 10-second runoff, Eason found Riley Ridley on an impressive 47-yard touchdown pass that went just about the full distance in the air. To make matters worse, Foreman slowed down on the coverage for half a step. Had he kept going full speed the whole way, he likely would have broken up the pass at worst.
Georgia was up 31-28 in front of its raucous home crowd with ten ticks on the clock. Some teams would’ve hung it up and gone home. Tennessee did not.
UGA helped the Volunteers with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the touchdown, which backed up the kickoff 15 yards, and another bonus five yards got tacked onto Evan Berry’s 20-yard return thanks to an offside flag on the Bulldogs.
The sum total of events gave Dobbs the ball a manageable 43 yards from the end zone. With just four seconds on the clock, there was time for only one play. Dobbs dropped back and heaved a pass to a cluster of players in the middle of the end zone. Jennings timed his jump perfectly, but none of the Bulldog defenders did the same. Jennings came down with the ball, securing the win and setting off pandemonium on the Tennessee sideline.
It was far from a clean win for Tennessee. The Vols fumbled the ball away twice, and Dobbs threw an awful pick in the fourth quarter. They left points on the table, failing to score twice when getting within the Bulldog 40. The Georgia offensive line looked like chopped liver two weeks running against Missouri and Ole Miss, respectively, but the Bulldogs ripped off a 50-percent success rate on the ground with seven rushes for at least 10 yards.
If the Volunteers continue to fall behind by three scores in the first half, it almost certainly will end badly for them eventually. Against all odds, it didn’t on Saturday. The shorthanded defense came through with a score when it counted, and Dobbs never lost his cool when the defense faltered in the end. Whatever mental humps this team had to surmount, the coaches and players are definitely clear of them now.
This year is only the fourth time Tennessee has defeated both Florida and Georgia in the same season in the divisional era. The Volunteers made the SEC Championship Game twice in those prior years—1998 and 2004—only missing out during the tumultuous 1992 campaign. When only defeating one of those two, the team had gone to Atlanta just three times in 12 seasons. Getting both of those wins is always vital for UT’s path to Atlanta, and in 2016, it got them both.
The Vols haven’t wrapped up the East by any means. They still must play what appear to be the best two teams of the West with a road trip to Texas A&M and a home match with Alabama coming up in the next two weeks. Drop those two, and they could still be home the first Saturday of December if the Gators somehow finish 7-1 in conference play.
Still, Tennessee hasn’t started 5-0 since its undefeated national championship campaign in 1998. Despite all of the theatrics necessary to get here, the Volunteers are in terrific shape nearly halfway through their regular season schedule.