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Tennessee Will Be Tough—Can Georgia Win a Shootout?

Receiver Ladd McConkey has become a weapon for now-entrenched starter Stetson Bennett. Credit: Tony Walsh

The Dawgs are No. 1 in college football and sitting pretty at 9-0. It’s the second time Georgia has been 9-0 under Kirby Smart, the first time coming in 2017. With three games left in the regular season, this team is trying to achieve something only achieved by the 1980 national title-winning team: go 12-0. 

But don’t pencil in that perfect regular-season record just yet. Crazy things can happen in college football, especially when you go on the road. And next weekend we have to travel to one of the toughest locales in the SEC, Knoxville, to face Tennessee’s high-powered offense in front of 100,000 hootin’ Vols.

We all know how good this Georgia defense has been this season. It’s allowing a paltry 6.5 points per game, and no opponent has scored more than 13. Because of that dominance, the offense hasn’t needed to score much to win, although it is averaging 38.4 points per game.

The concern has been over what would happen if we did get into a shootout. How would we respond? Well, if that’s going to happen in the regular season, it will be against Tennessee.

Under first-year head coach Josh Heupel, the Vols have lit up scoreboards. The Vols rank 15th nationally in points per game (38.2) and 20th in total yardage per game (457.6). Against Kentucky, they won 45-42 despite only 13:52 of possession, the least possession in a winning effort by any team since 2005.

Because of losses to high-powered LSU, Florida, and Alabama offenses in recent years, there is an apprehension in the fanbase about potential shootouts. The fact that Stetson Bennett IV was the starter in two of those losses and is once again the starter heading into the last stretch of the season isn’t lost on anyone, either.

The gamble Kirby is making by starting Bennett over JT Daniels, who is a better overall passer, is that the defense is so good, Bennett will never need to beat anyone in a shootout. It’s the same gamble he made in 2017 with Jake Fromm under center. Back then, it worked like a charm… until it didn’t: second and 26.

But if there was any year that gamble could pay off, it’s this one. There is no 2019 LSU or 2020 Alabama out there. A handful of teams may still be capable of forcing us into a shootout—Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma—but those teams’ offenses have been slowed down by defenses nowhere near as good as Georgia’s.

With that in mind, it seems likely Kirby sticks with Bennett. Against Missouri, Bennett passed for 255 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 completions, with four completions going for more than 20 yards. Don’t look now, but Bennett has become an explosive passer, making doubters such as myself look like fools.

Not only that, but reinforcements have arrived. Receivers Jermaine Burton, Arian Smith and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint all returned to full duty against Missouri. For the first time this season, we have most of our receiving corps healthy. Now we don’t just have talent at receiver, we have depth, thanks to the reps Ladd McConkey, Adonai Mitchell and Brock Bowers received in those guys’ absence. A healthy receiving corps will go a long way toward closing the gap between Bennett and Daniels as passers. Add to that the fact that Bennett has more reps and is more mobile, I don’t see any reason to start Daniels again, barring a horrendous performance from Bennett in the next few weeks.

There’s also something to be said for the psychological aspect of playing Bennett. Kirby comes from the Nick Saban School of Player Motivation. That means he wants to make sure his players always have a chip on their shoulders and play as if no one believes in them, when in fact all anyone has done all year is heap praise on them. But Bennett gives the offense a rallying cry, “No one believes in this guy but us.” That bit of pettiness may provide the offense with an extra edge the rest of the way. 

You did it, Stetson. You won me over. I’m a believer. Now try not to make me look like a fool again.