ATHENS, Ga. — The sport that America embraces every Saturday in the fall is built on the pulse of possibility, on the dynasties that rise and fall, on the sheer unpredictability of when joy and good fortune will smile on the poor souls waiting for the day when their cursed stories turn around.
But the fundamental truth of college football across years and decades has not changed, and will likely never change. In the end, talent wins.
You can trick people for a little while. You can ride the wave of confidence and momentum for a couple months, as Tennessee did for the first eight weeks of this season. You can maybe even take advantage of a few good breaks and make a token appearance in the College Football Playoff, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s what keeps people coming back week after week, year after year, even when 95 percent of the sport starts the season with no realistic chance of winning a national championship.
At the end of the day, though, there are only two kinds of programs: Those built to win titles, and those whose shortcomings will eventually be exposed.
The analysis of No. 1 Georgia’s 27-13 victory Saturday over No. 3 Tennessee is no more complicated than that. While the Vols spent the last decade mired in dysfunction and mismanagement, Kirby Smart has spent his tenure stacking one elite recruiting class on top of another, replicating the DNA of the Alabama machine and turning Athens from a genteel place to a torture chamber.
Maybe Tennessee will get there one day. The Vols aren’t there yet, and Georgia showed how far they still have to travel. Even though this finished as a two-touchdown game, Georgia delivered the kind of wipeout that true championship-level programs can muster when the stakes are this high.
“They’ve been recruiting at a really high level for a really long time,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said.
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That’s how you lose 15 NFL draft picks off a national title team and come back just as good if not better. That’s how you build a team that can play and win any style, in any stadium, in any weather conditions. That’s how Georgia did what nobody else has done to Tennessee’s offense this season, allowing a mere 289 yards to a team that had been averaging 553.
“Physical toughness won out today for us,” Smart said.
Make no mistake, the Vols did not fluke their way to 8-0. But their brand of football had been distinctly about jumping on top of teams who were not used to their pace and forcing opponents to play outside of their comfort zone. It looked so easy at times that Tennessee could make you think it was impossible to slow down, much less stop completely.
Most teams, in fact, were not equipped to handle it. Week after week, the film of the Volunteers showed receivers shockingly open and defenses hopelessly confused about how to substitute, how to cover and generally how not to embarrass themselves.
But this wasn’t Smart’s first rodeo. As the week went on, he grew more confident that players understood exactly what Georgia needed to do: Try to erase the soul-crushing deep balls that Tennessee has completed with regularity this season, make quarterback Hendon Hooker take underneath throws and then rely on Georgia’s speed to close quickly and tackle.
“We weren’t giving them layups,” Smart said. “When you play Tennessee, they go for the knockout blow in the first round.”
Georgia didn’t just survive it, the Bulldogs flipped the script. Backed by one of the consistently loudest crowds at Sanford Stadium, Tennessee was the team that got rattled by Georgia’s energy. Tennessee was the team that got crossed up by pre-snap penalties (eight in all). Tennessee was the team that found itself under constant pressure to keep up as the Bulldogs raced away to a 21-3 lead.
“I’d say that experience is very helpful,” said Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett. “It’s the unknown in big games. You don’t know what kind of freaks you out, but something (will). And now we have played on the big stages, and the freshmen who haven’t, the old guys have shown them how to prepare for it so that the unknown doesn’t matter. have to get first downs and touchdowns, and they have to do the same thing. So who is going to do that better?”
Probably not one.
After opening the season with a freakishly good 49-3 win over Oregon, Georgia mostly been in the background of the national conversation the last several weeks. Though most of the Bulldogs would not admit to it, the fact that Tennessee had received the No. 1 ranking from the College Football Playoff selection committee this week was the greatest gift they could have received.
Not only did Georgia have better players than Tennessee, it suddenly had a tangible piece of motivational material both for the players and a crowd that had a clear impact on how the game was played.
“They won the critical plays,” Heupel said. “They played clean early in the game. Communication issues hurt us. In this game, you have to reset and come back and make plays. We didn’t do enough early in the game to apply pressure to them. As a program, you have to understand what you’re getting yourself into.”
In the end, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been for Tennessee. By the start of the second half, Georgia had such full control of the scoreboard and the line of scrimmage that Smart put the game in lockdown mode the way Nick Saban’s Alabama teams used to do. With a driving rain covering the field in the third quarter, there wasn’t much need to take a risk.
Tennessee partisans will argue that keeping the respectable score should keep them in the playoff chase, even though they now have almost no path to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. We’ll see. The Vols can be in the discussion if they keep winning, but they’re going to need help.
The most important takeaway Saturday is that there is still a large gulf between Georgia and everybody else, including the shiny new object that came to Athens with an aura of unstoppability. Instead, Tennessee left with an offensive line that got overwhelmed, a quarterback who looked rattled for the first time all year and a defense that didn’t really feel like it had much of a chance.
But that’s what Georgia has done to everyone since last the beginning of last season. College football fairy tales come and go, but the teams with the best players and the best coaches will always be there in the end. Tennessee may be ascending, but Georgia hasn’t come down even an inch.
Good luck trying to catch them.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism