Georgia vs. Tennessee: 10 Things We Learned in Vols' Loss
No. 6 Georgia wasn't expecting a barnburner heading into Neyland Stadium Saturday, but it got one. It took a clutch game-tying touchdown drive with seconds left and overtime for the Bulldogs to top the Vols, 34-31.
Debuting its "Smokey gray" alternate jerseys, the Vols looked to be the same old group in the first half, entering halftime with a 17-3 deficit.
But how quickly things can change. One blocked punt, one transformed quarterback, one new-look defense and one overtime later, the Vols-Bulldogs matchup captivated the college football landscape and made a statement about how far along the Tennessee program already is.
Here are the biggest 10 things I learned from Tennessee's date with Georgia on Saturday.
These Are Not Your Older Sibling's Volunteers
Strong start, misfortune, second-half collapse—such has been the narrative for Tennessee against elite teams in the past half-decade.
So when the Vols came out of halftime facing a 17-3 deficit and then put the sixth-ranked team in the nation on the brink of defeat with less than two minutes left, it's safe to say there were some surprised folks across the nation.
Even unhealthy habits UT has shown so far in this 2013 campaign—like failing to turn defense into offense—were thrown to the wayside on Saturday. When the momentum turned in the Vols' direction, they took it and ran—fast.
This team has a new swagger, a new mantra, that is fueling them to play beyond their years and talent levels.
Coming off a year where the Vols finished 5-7 with a heck of a roster, seeing Jones' squad nearly knock off the No. 6 team in the country with this roster is nothing short of admirable.
Justin Worley May Be Your Starter After All
I was awfully hard on Vols quarterback Justin Worley after the South Alabama game last weekend, saying what many Tennessee fans were preaching for weeks—he's not the right guy to lead this offense.
I was wrong.
Worley's stat line isn't jaw-dropping by any means—17-of-31 for 215 yards and a touchdown—but he constantly made big plays on third down and threaded the needle when the Vols needed him to.
At times, it looked like Georgia's Heisman-contending quarterback Aaron Murray switched into Tennessee's No. 14 jersey. While Murray struggled to push the ball downfield, Worley constantly made impressive throws that weren't in his arsenal prior to Saturday.
Plus, refusing to turn the ball over is an improvement to say the least after throwing three picks last weekend against South Alabama.
Vol fans have been calling for true freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs for weeks, but Worley's performance on Saturday should quickly put those voices to rest—at least for now.
The Unknown Star Strikes Again
For the second time this season, the Vols' opponent lost one of its biggest offensive playmakers. And for the second time, a previously unknown guy played a big role in the opponent's victory.
Enter J.J. Green.
Georgia's third-stringer racked up 17 carries for 129 yards, with a long of 32 yards. His average of 7.6 yards per carry was a huge factor in an often stagnant Bulldogs offense.
Green's emergence channelled a tough memory for Vols fans. On the road at Florida earlier this season, Gator quarterback Jeff Driskel went down, only to have mobile backup Tyler Murphy lead Florida to victory with 10 scrambles for 84 yards.
It may not have been Green who won Georgia this game, but it at least canceled out what would've otherwise been a major advantage for UT—the ground game.
Vols Show Incredible Improvement on Third-Down Defense
The Tennessee defense has turned the "bend but don't break" mentality on its head in recent seasons. "Break but don't bend" would better describe UT's defense prior to Saturday.
Third down has been a nightmare for the Vols, but they held the Bulldogs to a lowly 4-of-13 conversion rate in that department.
The Vols defense was able to get off the field by stuffing 3rd-and-short opportunities all game long, but the few times Georgia was able to move the chains on third down came during its late-regulation rally to tie up the game.
Obviously, there are a few third downs—namely Georgia's game-tying touchdown pass to Rantavious Wooten—the defense would like to have back, but it was a vast improvement overall in what has been an Achilles' heel for this unit.
Alton "Pig" Howard Is Tennessee's Most Explosive Weapon
Sophomore wideout Alton "Pig" Howard will put much of the blame for Saturday's loss on his shoulders, and that's a crying shame.
Howard emerged as a dangerous offensive weapon on a team that undoubtedly needed one, catching four balls for 70 yards. He also was featured early and often with the end-around rushing play, which worked to the tune of six carries for 46 yards.
Of course, Howard's mishap on the goal line in overtime—where the ball slipped out of his hands just prior to entering the end zone, resulting in a touchback—will be a lingering memory from Saturday not only for fans, but for himself.
But if Tennessee wants to have any business being in games of this magnitude this season, it will need to pick Pig up and get him to shake this one off—as hard as that will be to do.
Devaun Swafford Won't Be a Walk-on for Long
As if a pick-six against Florida wasn't enough for walk-on true freshman Devaun Swafford to stake his claim for a scholarship, Saturday's performance will.
After a blocked punt by Jalen Reeves-Maybin late in the third quarter, Swafford corralled the bouncing ball and took it to the house to tie things up at 17 apiece.
Sure, picking up a blocked punt and scoring it involves much more opportunity and fortune than intercepting a ball in The Swamp for a score.
When Butch Jones and Co. brought Swafford in, they certainly had a vision for him. I'm not sure if that vision included two touchdowns against Florida and Georgia.
Defense Is Playing Beyond Its Years
Tennessee faces a pro-style quarterback with Heisman aspirations and all-time SEC records at stake. Cue the sad violin, right?
Not quite. The Vols defense adjusted incredibly well after giving up easy first-down throws to Murray, shutting down his passing attack for much of the second half and giving the offense a chance to win the game.
During many key drives where it just felt like it was Georgia's time to run away with the game, the defense played its best and put the ball back in Worley's hands.
Sure, it didn't come up with the stop it needed in crunch time. They didn't turn the ball over, either.
But the defensive unit was able to get off the field at an alarming rate on Saturday and did so many times by giving the Vols a field-position advantage.
A Butch Jones Team Won't Be Overlooked Ever, Ever Again
The sense of momentum surrounding the Tennessee football program hasn't gone unnoticed, but the on-field product in 2013 prior to Saturday gave the indication that the SEC's elite could still walk over the Vols for another season or so.
Yeah, that's a thing of the past.
Playing a team riddled with freshmen didn't cause the Vols to slip up on Saturday. If anything, it helped—a pair of true freshmen (one walk-on) combined for UT's game-tying punt block for a touchdown.
A once-putrid offense looked dangerous Saturday, making big play after big play late in a game that Tennessee had no business being in, at least on paper.
Motivation and preparation are curious traits in sports. They are things that can transcend talent and experience at times.
That's what happened Saturday in Neyland Stadium. And if the SEC's elite aren't careful—and even if they are—it may happen again.
Rajion Neal Is a Workhorse
Tennessee running back Rajion Neal has been showing his worth for a couple of seasons, but for the first time, he was an absolute workhorse who served as the final piece for a solid offense.
With Marlin Lane out, Neal was expected to get a lion's share of the carries. But 28 wasn't exactly in the cards.
Combined with five catches, Neal touched the ball 33 times for a total of 167 yards and couldn't be stopped at the goal line—scoring twice in key situations.
Lane and Neal alongside each other have looked to be a heck of a one-two punch behind a stud offensive line, which only sparked doubt when Lane went down last weekend against South Alabama.
If Saturday's game was any indication, the Vols will be fine as long as No. 20 is toting the rock.
Neyland Stadium Should Be Rocking in Two Weekends
One week ago, the Vols were coming off two defeats to big-time programs and let Sun Belt foe South Alabama push them to a final possession before squeaking out a victory.
So it wasn't much of a surprise when a huge chunk of Neyland Stadium's student section was empty come kickoff on Saturday against Georgia.
That will be no more. The Vols stood toe-to-toe with a team that could be contending for a national title by the season's end, and were a few unlucky breaks away from putting Rocky Top back on top of the college football world—at least for a night.
Tennessee will enjoy a much-needed bye week coming up, but then turn around to host No. 13 South Carolina in the same stadium that was rocking in a way it hasn't in more than half a decade.
Vol fans haven't seen a whole lot of promise on the field in recent weeks, and their unique home-field advantage in front of 102,455 fans was once again becoming debatable. That's no longer the case.
It's been a while since Tennessee has hung with an elite team for four quarters, and much longer since it's defeated said elite team.
Hopes will be high on Oct. 19, when the Gamecocks roll into town.