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Tennessee Is Georgia’s New Big Bad in the SEC East

Teammates mobbed tight end Arik Gilbert after his first career touchdown. Credit: Tony Walsh / UGA Athletics

I don’t think Kirby Smart has forgiven Vanderbilt for canceling Senior Day in 2020.

Georgia brushed aside Vandy in a 55-0 win Saturday in Athens. It’s the second shutout in as many years against the ‘Dores. In those two games, Georgia won by a combined score of 117-0.

But while the Dawgs were dominating, the landscape of this season was shifting under their feet. For Georgia fans, it was just another Saturday against Vanderbilt. For Tennessee fans, it was the Third Saturday in October and the annual showdown against Alabama. And wouldn’t you know it, the Vols did the damn thing and beat the Crimson Tide 52-49, hitting a game-winning field goal as time expired. It’s their first victory over Bama in 15 years.

This is a Georgia column, so I’ll try not to get bogged down with more details about Tennessee or Alabama than needed. Suffice it to say, though, that result changes the complexion of the rest of our season. The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has served as a de facto SEC East championship game for the last decade, if not longer. But with Vols sporting a 6-0 record and fresh off a win over Alabama, there’s a new Big Bad the Dawgs must conquer this season.

None of which is to say I’m looking past Florida. I’m too conditioned by years of pain and struggle to write them off without a thought. But the “November stretch”—beginning Oct. 29 against Florida, followed by Tennessee, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Georgia Tech—that will determine our postseason fate looks much tougher now that the Vols have proven they can compete at the top of the SEC.

You can expect in the coming weeks to hear more and more about the Vols and less and less about the Dawgs in the national media. Tennessee is coming off its biggest game in decades. Georgia is coming off Vanderbilt and going into a bye week. Tennessee is the new hotness, and some folks may rank them ahead of Georgia or label them the new favorite to win the East. But that may play in the Dawgs’ favor, because while the national attention has been elsewhere, Kirby has quietly been getting the house in order.

The close call against Missouri in Week 5 seemed to snap the team back into focus. One of the hallmarks of last year’s championship team was player-led accountability. The lasting image I’ll have of the Mizzou win is Jamon Dumas-Johnson tearing into Kamari Lassiter after a Lassiter pass interference led to a touchdown. After losing so many players, it was expected there would be a leadership void. It seems like, with time, that is being filled.

It’s also taken some time to build cohesion, the “connection” Smart talked so much about and rode to a national championship last season. On several occasions against Vanderbilt, you could see how much the players cared for one another. Teammates mobbed Dominick Blaylock on the sideline when he caught his first touchdown since 2019, before his two ACL tears. Ditto Arik Gilbert, who didn’t play last year and hasn’t played since Week 2, catching his first touchdown. Walk-on sixth-stringer Cash Jones was all smiles when his teammates dogpiled him following a 36-yard touchdown run.

Then there’s the bye week itself. Georgia has been without some of its best players for weeks because of injury. Jalen Carter, the best all-around player on the team, has sat for two weeks with an MCL sprain. Smael Mondon has also missed two weeks since claiming a starting linebacker spot early in the season. AD Mitchell has been out five weeks with an ankle injury, robbing Stetson Bennett and the Georgia offense of one of its biggest downfield threats. A week off doesn’t guarantee that these players, or any others who are banged up, will be healthy and ready to play. It gives them a fighting chance to return before crunch time, though.

So enjoy the bye week. Let the pundits talk up Tennessee. As the late Dennis Green said, “If you want to crown ’em, then crown their ass.” The Dawgs will lay in wait, getting healthier and more focused, preparing for the Cocktail Party and what comes next.