Last season’s 43-14 Georgia victory over Tennessee in Knoxville pushed the Bulldogs into the all-time series lead. These two nearby foes, separated by a four-hour drive depending on the route and about 24 minutes in the air, did not begin playing annually until the first round of Southeastern Conference expansion when the league split into divisions in 1992.
Up until that point, the Bulldogs and Volunteers had been rather infrequent foes, and neither considered the other a great rival by any stretch. When the Bulldogs were tied by Tennessee 17-17 in Knoxville in 1968 – a bitter pill for Georgia, as the Volunteers scored a touchdown with no time on the clock on what was a dropped pass ruled a catch, and the subsequent two-point conversion, all with shaky time-keeping in the first year the clock was stopped after first downs – it marked the first meeting between the two since 1937. General Robert Neyland’s powerhouses from the Smokies were at the height of their dominance, and beat the Bulldogs 46-0 in 1936 and 32-0 in ‘37.
Legendary Bulldogs quarterback Andy Johnson had the big play and scored the game-winning touchdown in Knoxville in 1973, marking Georgia’s first triumph over Tennessee since … 1924. It marked the first of four straight wins in the series for Vince Dooley’s Dogs. There was of course the famed 16-15 win at Neyland Stadium in Herschel Walker’s famed debut in the greatest of seasons in 1980. As defending national champions, Georgia opened the 1981 campaign with a 44-0 trouncing of Tennessee. The two would not play again until 1988. Again it was the season opener. Again it was in Athens. Rodney Hampton and Tim Worley led a powerful rushing attack, as Georgia prevailed with sheets of rain coming down 28-17. All of these games featured some magical gems from the incomparable Larry Munson.
Following the 1988 season, Dooley retired as the Bulldogs head coach and Georgia led the all-time series with Tennessee 10-8-2.
When the 21st century dawned, Tennessee led the all-time series 17-10-2.
Tennessee beat Georgia 17-14 in Knoxville in 1989. Then came the split into divisions and the annual meetings in 1992. The Bulldogs lost a 34-31 heartbreaker, turning the ball over six times and giving up a critical fourth down play. The rest of the 1990s belonged to the Orange and White. Yep, Tennessee ripped off nine straight wins in the series, and won in eight consecutive seasons up through 1999. Most of the games proved to be rather one-sided.
From the Bulldogs standpoint at least, Tennessee had certainly become a rival.
But in the year 2000, Jim Donnan’s Bulldogs pulled off a 21-10 victory “Between the Hedges,” and for the first time, the goalposts came down in Sanford Stadium.
Mark Richt took over in 2001, and Georgia chalked up the famous “Hobnail Boot” – more Munson magic – victory, with David Greene, Verron Hayens, Damien Gary and Randy McMichael the leading heroes. Georgia would win four straight, but had one get away in 2004. It would have been four straight SEC Championship Games were it not for that ‘04 setback. Tennessee won three of four from 2006-2009, but in the 2010s the series shifted Georgia’s way. The Bulldogs went 8-2 in the decade – the two losses were a blown 24-3 lead in 2015 and the Hail Mary the following year.
That was Kirby Smart’s first season at the helm of his alma mater. Since then, the Bulldogs have defeated the Vols 41-0, 38-12 and 43-14 en route to three straight SEC Championship Games and three successive 11-1 regular seasons.
Through Red and Black glasses, it should’ve been a 10-0 decade versus the Volunteers. Of course, the Tennessee faithful sure felt things should’ve gone their way on Pig Howard’s fumble out of the end zone in the overtime stretch attempt of 2013 that ended on a Marshall Morgan game-winner.
So now here we are.
Georgia is the first team from the SEC East to go to three straight SEC Championship Games since Steve Spurrier’s great Florida teams in the 1990s. Tennessee is on the rise. The Volunteers head man Jeremy Pruitt, Richt’s defensive chief in 2014 and 2015 and a secondary coach at Alabama when Smart was Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator, knows that for the Volunteers to ascend to the top of the division, they must beat Georgia.
This is enormous for supremacy in the SEC East, and with that, there are major recruiting stakes. There always are.
The Peach State is always a big battle ground in the pursuit of top talent. Tennessee always sets its sights on the state of Georgia, especially the area from Atlanta north. Many of the Volunteers greatest teams had a lot of talent from their southern neighbors stomping grounds – Willie Gault, Ben Talley, and the trio of Deon Grant, Cosey Coleman and Jamal Lewis top the list.
You can bet that Pruitt is putting in everything to try and topple the Bulldogs, and then launch an all out assault on the Peach State on the recruiting trail.
As Smart likes to say, pressure is a privilege. The target is on Georgia’s chests, as the rest of the division attempts to end the Bulldogs reign atop the SEC East. The Bulldogs are being hunted, but must play with the hunter’s mentality to prevail on Saturday. A victory would keep the Dogs in the forefront of the SEC East race, certainly be a boost to recruiting, and push the lead in the all-time series to a two game margin for the first time since 1988 in what has no doubt become a full-on rivalry over the last three decades.