Intense interrogation came before Georgia’s last trip to Knoxville. Questions about handling noise from a crowd topping 100,000 spectators. Curiosity as to how then-freshman quarterback Jake Fromm would handle his first road start in the SEC.
How would a young, ascending team handle another chance in the national spotlight? Georgia already drew many eyes with its statement win at Notre Dame, but the next level of progress would only come if the Bulldogs could handle Tennessee in a thought-to-be hostile environment.
Place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship booted a per-usual touchback and Georgia’s defense had the first task of answering those questions. One play did the trick.
Georgia is preparing for a tougher test in Knoxville than the last. Realistically, however, the practice routine remains the same and the Bulldogs always prepare for a tightly-contested game.
But there’s potential to waltz out of Neyland Stadium in dominance as Georgia did two years ago.
Georgia’s Tyrique McGhee — who started for the Bulldogs at cornerback — picked off the Volunteers’ first play from scrimmage. All of the hostility became non-existent.
“From then on, we had a big jump on them,” linebacker Tae Crowder said. “That felt good.”
Georgia’s next drive resulted in a field goal, and seemed like a letdown in the moment. Falling short of a touchdown with favorable field position could’ve been a disadvantage in many situations. Here, however, it served as the catalyst. Georgia’s defense allowed four yards through three Tennessee drives.
Those stops led to an offensive burst. Fromm still might’ve had some nerves. These were the days of throwing for 84 yards and keeping things simple for a quarterback who notices many of his own improvements.
“I remember it being kind of loud going in,” Fromm said. “I didn’t really know what to expect.”
But Fromm remained composed, allowed his running backs to carry the load — which is still the case — and even had two rushing touchdowns on read option plays to rile up a fan base that enjoyed seeing an extra element to the then-freshman’s game.
As Fromm continued to lead the Bulldogs’ offense, the defense answered. Four forced turnovers led the charge and Roquan Smith had his per-usual afternoon with 11 tackles at linebacker. Tennessee’s quarterback duo of Quentin Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano combined for 11-for-23 and 80 yards.
A series of second-quarter drives told the story: Tennessee punt. Georgia touchdown. Tennessee interception on the first snap — again. Georgia touchdown.
After that final swing in momentum, the 2017 installment between two rivals had essentially written its tale. But, Georgia added on a few scores for good measure and Tennessee’s stagnant offense remained on-par for how the game’s storyline began to unfold.
Sixty minutes of one-sided football later, a glance toward the scoreboard displayed a result of historic proportions: Georgia 41, Tennessee 0. The Bulldogs danced out of Neyland Stadium with savage pads and pure dominance for the series’ largest margin of victory in Knoxville.
“It was pretty special,” Crowder said.
Said head coach Kirby Smart: “We had a very experienced defensive football team, and we had some really good players on offense at the skill positions.”
Some games throughout the last three seasons are pinpointed as reasons for the Bulldogs’ rise toward prominence. In some regards, Tennessee could serve as one given its dominant fashion and ability to handle SEC opponents away from Sanford Stadium. Georgia, however, doesn’t think much of it as it prepares for a renewal two years later.
The Volunteers have since undergone a coaching change — Jeremy Pruitt replacing Butch Jones, now in his second season as analyst at Alabama — and have a new dynamic. Tennessee continues a rebuild and enters Saturday’s contest with a 1-3 record after home losses to Georgia State, Brigham Young and a 31-point shellacking at the hands of ninth-ranked Florida.
Despite a start that has placed Tennessee in the negative spotlight, Smart holds the utmost respect for Tennessee. He coached with Pruitt at Alabama and beat him 38-12 last season in Athens. Smart sees physicality in Tennessee, and says the Volunteers are “on the brink of something special.”
“We know we’re going to get their best shot,” Smart said. “Our job is to make sure they get our best shot.”
Georgia takes another trip to Knoxville on Saturday, Oct. 5. Kickoff will be under the Neyland Stadium lights at 7 p.m. on ESPN.