The Georgia-Tennessee series is what I call a “new” rivalry. If you are under 40, just hang on before getting too upset with me.
Before the Southeastern Conference split into divisions – with a then unheard of 12 teams and the first over league championship game – in 1992, the Bulldogs and Volunteers simply hadn’t played very much. Since ‘92, these two SEC blue-bloods have squared off every year.
Herschel Walker’s debut in 1980, so masterfully articulated by the incomparable Larry Munson is the first Georgia-Tennessee game I remember. I was eight. It was the first game between the two since 1973, when Andy Johnson’s amazing athleticism – again, perfectly described by the Mighty Munson – led Georgia to a 35-31 comeback win at Neyland Stadium. The Bulldogs trailed 15-0, then got a safety off a fumbled punt on a play where Georgia should have scored a touchdown. Then it was Herschel’s two scoring runs, Rex Robinson’s point after touchdowns and a huge fumble recovery that saved Georgia on a hot night in Knoxville, and started Destiny’s Dawgs of 1980 on a magical run to a perfect 12-0 national championship campaign.
A year later, Georgia’s reigning national champions rolled past the Volunteers 44-0 in Athens to open the 1981 season. It was triumph on par with Georgia’s defending national championship team of 2022 kicking off the campaign with a 49-3 win over the Oregon Ducks en route to a second straight big ring. Unfortunately, Georgia’s great 1981 team came up just short of another national championship, but that outstanding Bulldog squad became the first in program history to capture back-to-back SEC titles.
When Georgia and Tennessee played to a heartbreaking 17-17 tie to kick off the 1968 season in Knoxville on national tv, it marked the first meeting between the two since 1937. 1937! Those were the early days of General Robert Neyland’s dynasty at Tennessee. From 1899-1937, the Bulldogs and Volunteers played 13 times, with both sides winning six games and the 1906 contest ending in a 0-0 tie.
That 1968 tie was bitter for Georgia. The Bulldogs led 17-9. It was the first year the clock stopped on first downs. A friendly Neyland Stadium clock operator helped the Vols to several extra snaps via what were surely honest snafus under the new set of rules and guidelines. Tennessee “caught” a touchdown with no time left. Of course there was no replay, but it was a drop. Then the Vols got the game-tying two-point conversion.
Following the memorable triumphs of 1980 and 1981, the Bulldogs and Volunteers wouldn’t play again until 1988. I was 16, and in the stands with my friend Bob Deal. Rodney Hampton ran for 196 yards and two touchdowns, Tim Worley ran for 144 and two scores and the Dogs won 28-17. The Heavens opened late in the fourth quarter – there was some serious Munson magic on that one … he loved the Dawgs and he loved weather – and it was an unforgettable night. I’d just turned 16.
At that point, Georgia led the all-time series 10-8-2.
Georgia wouldn’t beat Tennessee again until the next century. Yeah, that might sound a little dramatic, but the Volunteers won nine in a row against the Dogs, Georgia’s longest losing streak against one team in program history. Heading into the 2000s, Tennessee led the all-time series 17-10-2.
The Vols won the return game in Knoxville in 1989. Then came 1992 and the league’s splitting into divisions and what would become an annual game. It’s the new rivalry, and for Georgia fans 40 and under, right up there amongst three of four biggest. The enemy, Florida and Auburn were always the big three. Georgia would close annually with the Gators, Tigers and Yellow Jackets. Honestly though, since divisional play, mathematically, the Tennessee game has meant more than Auburn in terms of the standings. That proved true in 2017 when the Bulldogs avenged a regular season loss to the Tigers with a 28-7 victory over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.
In that 1992 game, my first sophomore year at Georgia, the Dogs fell 34-31, turning the ball over six times. It was brutal. Not many were close after that.
Until Georgia finally won in 2000.
If you’re keeping count, I was 28, as Jim Donnan’s Dogs topped Tennessee 21-10 and the goalposts came down in Sanford Stadium.
The tables turned.
Georgia won four straight from 2000-2003.
Tennessee then won four of six.
But since 2010, Georgia is a robust 11-2 against the Volunteers. The two losses came in 2015 when the Vols rallied from a 24-3 deficit to win in Knoxville and the Josh Dobbs Hail Mary the following year, Kirby Smart’s first as Georgia’s head coach. Though as a redshirt freshman in 1995, he picked off Peyton Manning to set up an almost win on a last second loss, Smart was never on the winning side when the Bulldogs and Tennessee played.
Under his watch, Smart’s Bulldogs have won six straight against Tennessee while ascending to the mountaintop of college football. Georgia now leads the all-time series 27-23-2. Leading the series seemed highly unlikely at the turn of the century. Especially to a now 51-year old, under the tutelage of the greatest poor-mouthers ever Vince Dooley and Larry Munson, naturally born and bred pessimist thoroughly enjoying the grandest of times in Georgia football history.