KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It has been a long time since the Tennessee-Georgia rivalry carried significance for both teams, but that will be the case once more when the teams meet at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday between Sanford Stadium’s stories Hedges.
“This is a team that a lot of people picked to win the SEC East.” Vols coach Butch Jones said of Saturday’s divisional showdown. “We will be challenged like we’ve not been challenged to date.”
That’s a mouthful when once considers No. 11-ranked Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) has trailed in three of its four games by double digits, including last week’s rousing 38-28 win over Florida in which three of the defense’s top four players were missing.
Those players — cornerback Cam Sutton and linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin — might all three be missing again depending on MRI results Reeves-Maybin underwent Wednesday.
Regardless, much will be at stake as No. 25 Georgia (3-1, 1-1) faces a virtual must-win situation against the Vols, coming off a 45-14 drubbing at Ole Miss.
It’s the first time Tennessee and Georgia have met with both teams ranked since 2006, when former Vols Erik Ainge and Arian Foster spearheaded a 55-31 victory in Athens.
That was also the last time Tennessee defeated a ranked team on the road, leaving Jones and his program with the motivation to break a road losing streak to Top 25 teams that has reached 23 games.
But beyond the league repercussions and the opportunity for the Vols to re-enforce their return to relevance, the game is personal.
Tennessee has 26 players on its roster from the Peach State, 10 on the two-deep, including quarterback and team captain Josh Dobbs.
Dobbs, from Alpharetta, has shrugged off the significance of playing in his home state, claiming to have been indifferent to the Bulldogs growing up.
Jones remembers how he had just 31 days to complete a recruiting class after being hired to take over the Tennessee program.
“When we looked at the roster we felt we needed to bring in another quarterback, and we had some prerequisites and expectations,” Jones said, asked about Dobbs’ recruitment. “We wanted someone who was mature, someone who was ultra-competitive, very savvy and intelligent, and we did a national search across the country, and that led us to Alpharetta, Georgia.”
More recently, the Vols knew they would be turning over some defensive backs before the 2016 season and secured a Jan. 1 commitment from Baylen Buchanan of Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee.
Jones couldn’t have known then that Buchanan would be playing such a key role in Tennessee’s title hopes, having to fill in for injured preseason All-SEC pick Cam Sutton.
Likewise for Cortez McDowell, a junior from Locust Grove, Ga., who has been pressed into action on account of the shoulder injury to Reeves-Maybin.
“(The game) means a lot to them because there’s familiarity with a lot of these players on Georgia’s team,” Jones explained. “They played against them in high school, so they have pre-existing relationships with them, and that’s where it means a lot.”
Here’s look at the Tennessee players in the two-deep who are from Georgia:
QB Josh Dobbs, Alpharetta
RB Alvin Kamara, Norcross
TE Jason Croom, Norcross
WR Preston Williams, Hampton
OL Venzell Boulware, Union City
LB Cortez McDowell, Locust Grove
LB Elliott Berry, Fairburn
CB Baylen Buchanan, Lawrenceville
S Micah Abernathy, Atlanta
S-KR Evan Berry, Fairburn
CB Cam Sutton, Jonesboro