The Tennessee Volunteers feature one of the most talent-laden rosters in college football, yet somehow, they have managed to receive upset scares from each of their four opponents this season.
The root of these early-season struggles has been sluggish starts. Tennessee is being outscored 34-10 in the first quarter this season, and despite facing only one ranked opponent, has trailed by more than a touchdown twice heading into the second half.
As it often does, talent has prevailed, handing the Volunteers an opportunity to extend their flawless record to 5-0, and in so doing, separate themselves even further from the other six apparent pretenders in the SEC East.
No. 11 Tennessee heads to Athens this weekend for its first road test of 2016 against No. 25 Georgia. Although the Bulldogs are still picking up the pieces from the 45-14 dismantling dealt to them by Ole Miss last week, they still remain the only real threat to the Volunteers in the division.
Both teams enter Saturday in control of their own destiny; the winner will stand atop the SEC East with a crucial tiebreaker over the other.
Given Tennessee’s dominance when playing up to its potential, a quick start for the Volunteers could doom a Georgia team that has looked unimpressive for significant stretches of the season. However, if they stumble out of the blocks as they have in each of the past four weeks, this game will remain competitive throughout.
It is no secret that Tennessee has been carried defensively this season, but the in-game turnarounds of senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs have allowed UT’s comebacks to unfold. Look for Dobbs to exploit a Georgia defense that had no answer for Chad Kelly’s dual-threat capabilities last Saturday.
Matchup to watch: Derek Barnett vs. the Georgia offensive line
Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett absolutely terrorized the Florida offense last week, recording five tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss and one pass breakup on the day. The junior could be in for another big performance on Saturday, since he goes up against a Georgia offensive line that allowed three sacks and nine quarterback hurries in its blowout loss to Ole Miss.
The lack of protection played a significant part in quarterback Jacob Eason having the worst game of his young college career last Saturday. The true freshman threw one interception with zero touchdowns while completing under 50 percent of his passes and averaging just 3.8 yards per attempt. If Eason struggles in similar fashion, which is likely to occur if Barnett finds his rhythm, Georgia will not stand a chance this weekend.
As Tennessee heads on the road to begin the toughest three-game stretch of its season, Saturday’s game feels almost like a must-win for the Volunteers. Sure, even with a loss they would still be alive and well in the race for the SEC East crown, but with a pair of top-10 opponents looming in Alabama and Texas A&M, their College Football Playoff hopes will hinge on their ability to build momentum immediately.
Expect Tennessee to do just that in delivering its first complete performance of 2016.
Final Score: Tennessee 35, Georgia 24