No. 7 Georgia surges into game at Tennessee (Sep 30, 2017)

ATHENS, Ga. — Although there is only one loss between them, Tennessee and No. 7 Georgia appear to be headed in different directions.

While injuries haven’t helped, the Volunteers’ lackluster offense has fans grumbling about head coach Butch Jones, while the undefeated Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC) are suddenly the toast of the SEC East after last week’s 31-3 dismantling of Mississippi State.

Georgia senior running back Sony Michel says he and the rest of the Bulldogs aren’t listening to any of the chatter.

“He (head coach Kirby Smart) is just doing a tremendous job on telling us how hard we need to work each week to prepare for a team,” Michel said. “I’m sure his message is going to be strong for our team. It is going to be effective and I’m sure everybody on the team will be willing to buy in.”

The teams meet Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, Tenn.

“We try to preach to our guys that every game has a history and life of its own, and every game is independent of the next game,” Smart said.

“If you try to relive or live in the past based on your last performance, humility is a week away. It doesn’t matter. No team cares what you did last week. Nobody in the SEC cares what you did last week. They only care what you do this week.”

For Tennessee (3-1, 0-1), the game seems crucial to the rest of the season.

Victims of a 63-yard Hail Mary loss to Florida two weeks ago, Tennessee was taken to the brink last Saturday by a winless Massachusetts team before prevailing 17-13. Many after the game — including Jones — questioned the Volunteers’ energy and passion.

What happened?

“That’s a good question and we talk about the things that make up the structure of our football program, little things that maybe nobody really sees until they’re not there, things that embody our football program. It starts first and foremost with energy and passion,” Jones said.

“I thought it was lackluster. We had some players now who played with some energy and passion, so it’s not everyone. I think we showed passion and energy in the other games, but that’s something that we will not tolerate and we will not go backwards with.”

Georgia’s offense is led by true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm — 9 of 12 for 201 yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State — and the senior backfield combination of Nick Chubb (371 yards, six touchdowns) and Michel (194 yards, two TDs).

Georgia’s defense has been making a statement all season.

The Bulldogs enter Saturday ranked fourth in total defense in the SEC (269.5 yards per game) and third in scoring defense (11.5).

They have a dynamic defensive front seven, led up front by veterans John Atkins and Trenton Thompson. Inside linebacker Roquan Smith led the team in tackles last season and has a team-high 27 this year. Outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter (three sacks this season) and Davin Bellamy spearheaded a smothering effort in a 20-19 win at Notre Dame on Sept. 9.

Georgia kept Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald out of the end zone last week.

“I think there have been good defensive players at Georgia for a long time. It’s getting them to play well, putting the right package together, and putting the perfect storm together with the talent that we had, and getting these guys to play well,” Smart said.

“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t think we played really well in the spring. I told you all that repeatedly and I don’t change that. We still have not played our best. We still have guys that do not strike blockers the right way and do it the right way consistently.”

Tennessee running back John Kelly, who leads the SEC with an average of 112.5 rushing yards per game, will try to find holes in the Bulldogs’ defense. Quinten Dormady remains the starting quarterback, although Jones turned to freshman Jarrett Guarantano for a spark against UMass. Guarantano completed 2 of 5 passes for minus-3 yards.

Georgia will have redemption on its mind Saturday. Tennessee won last season’s meeting on a 43-yard heave into the end zone from Joshua Dobbs.

That 34-31 decision was emblematic of the recent history of the series. The last six games between Tennessee and Georgia have been settled by eight points or less, including three of the last four decided by a field goal.