Continuing the quarantine rivalry series, we head north to ol’ Rocky Top to examine the game without a nickname. University of Tennessee. Vols. Vowels. UTjr. All the derisive nicknames. I hated this team when I was younger. I had too many friends in school wearing Tennessee Vol gear. It made no sense to me considering we were in Georgia. I didn’t understand people could live somewhere they weren’t from at the time. It also didn’t help the Vols were bashing our brains in throughout the 90s. Heath Schuler begat Peyton Manning begat Tee Martin who was good enough to win a National Title for the Vols in 1998.
In came Mark Richt and flipped the script to an extent. The hobnail boot game let us believe we could beat these guys again. Although our losses to Tennessee in the future would block us from our goals and dreams. Take the 2007 game, where we inexplicably lost to them. If we won, we play LSU in the SEC title game and probably win considering how great we were playing and how banged up they were. We would’ve torched Ohio in the BCS Championship game. Or maybe in the 2015 game if we hang on the rest of the season doesn’t spiral into disaster. None of it happened. We would beat Tennessee (usually) but it would always be a little too close for comfort.
In 2016 we got a little bit of a hobnail boot of our own. Sanford Stadium. Jacob Eason to Riley Ridley on a Hail Mary. The game was ours. Then dum dum Rico McGraw runs on the field to celebrate. Then we kick too short. Then they convert a Hail Mary of their own and no one plays the ball. We lose. So many “what if” scenarios can come from this. If we win that game, maybe we have the swagger to go on a run through the SEC East. Maybe we don’t lose to Vandy at homecoming. Maybe we find a way to beat the ditch lizards in Jacksonville. Maybe we beat the nerds at home. If we beat Tennessee that year, maybe Butch Jones gets fired a year early. If Tennessee could’ve beat Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and South Carolina maybe they go to the SEC Championship game and Butch stays on a few more years. Who knows, but it’s fun to wonder what if.
Things changed in 2017. I was at the WinStar Casino in Oklahoma watching this game. It was glorious. The first offensive play of the game when Tyrique McGhee intercepted Quenten Dormandy was amazing. It was all downhill from there in the 41–0 beat down. I had never seen us kick Tennessee’s ass that way. I loved every second of it. Butch Jones got his pink slip a few weeks after and they hired their 8th choice Jeremy Pruitt. I envisioned future beatdowns while Pruitt rebuilt the program. I didn’t get what I wanted. 2018 was a little too close for comfort at certain points. We won, but it wasn’t the same type of blowout as the year before. Same thing in 2019 until late in the second half.
Now, the Vols aren’t back to their 90’s heights. But they are further away from their 2017–18 lows than you would think. Yes I know they lost to Georgia State and BYU last year. I got a really big laugh out of it myself. Yet they made quite the comeback to get bowl eligible. Pruitt may lack couth, but the man can recruit. They don’t have Alabama or Georgia level depth, but they are trying to. In another year or two it’s going to get to be a slobberknocker of a game again. I don’t know if they can acquire all the depth they need with their impatient fanbase, but time will tell. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at the offensive, defensive, and new player who will make a difference in this game.
BEST TENNESSEE OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Jarrett Guarantano, QB. I’d be willing to bet a dollar 90% of the Vol faithful hate this kid. The reality is he is their best chance at beating us this year. Brian Maurer showed flashes and without spring practice, 2020 wunderkind Harrison Bailey won’t get on the field. Jarrett is in his redshirt senior season and this will be the first time he has the same offensive scheme two years in a row. He finally has an offensive line who can protect him. This will help, but he will miss Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. While he has capable runners, none really strike fear yet. He’s going to have to find a way to do it all while playmakers show themselves.
BEST GEORGIA OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Ben Cleveland, OG. Hear me out. 1) You’re gonna get worn out seeing me say the same skill positions each time I do these. 2) Our OL will be the key to winning this game. Tennesssee has a stud at ILB (read below) and our OL will need to create running lanes for the RBU to have its full impact. Ben Cleveland will be the most seasoned vet on the line. Salyer, Schaffer, Hill, Cleveland, and Truss left to right might be our starting OL (none of us really know right now). I’m counting on the OL to keep QB1 clean and allow RBU to show why it got that name.
BEST TENNESSEE DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Henry To’o To’o, ILB. Thankfully, this kid is only going to be around two more years. He’s a star in the making and a perfect fit for what Jeremy Pruitt wants to do. He will make plays. Also thankful for the idea that they don’t have anyone proven next to him. It’s possible JJ Peterson or Quavaris Crouch could step up and draw some notice, but until then it’s all on Henry. He can’t do it all himself, but it won’t stop him from trying. This defense is young and will soon be very formidable. If 2020 is the year, Henry will be the reason why.
BEST GEORGIA DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Azeez Ojulari, OLB. Second appearance for Mr. Ojulari. No one in the Vol WR corps will burn us like last year. Too many question marks or else I’d list a safety. If we get pressure on the QB it’ll come from the outside. Can Darnell Wright or Wanya Morris block him? Maybe, but not for the whole game. If Azeez can harass Guarantano, it might be a long day for the Tennessee offense. If the OL keeps him clean, it’ll be up to the secondary who should be up for the task with the young and/or inexperienced WRs.
BEST TENNESSEE NEWCOMER
Cade Mays, OL. It’s like acid in my mouth typing that. If he gets his waiver, and he probably will, he will solidify the line. If the line play is improved, it makes everything else better. Personally, I hope we treat him like a subway turnstile in Times Square all game.
BEST GEORGIA NEWCOMER
Jamie Newman, QB. I held out as long as I could. Now, this is assuming he wins (and keeps) the job. He should be seasoned enough to pick apart this defense. He will have a talented OL and plenty of toys to play with. The defense will give him plenty of opportunities, and now he only has to take advantage of them.