Wiedmer: Could 2004 happen all over again for Vols against Bulldogs?

In this 2004 AP file photo, Georgia's Fred Gibson (82) can't reach a pass from quarterback David Greene as Tennessee's Roshaun Fellows (36) defends during the first half of a football game in Athens, Ga. Tennessee won, 19-14. (AP file photo/John Bazemore)

Former Tennessee wide receiver Jayson Swain didn't have any trouble deciding who to yell for during Saturday night's Auburn-Georgia game.

"I was kind of rooting for Georgia to beat Auburn," he said on Monday afternoon. "I wanted the Bulldogs to be feeling good about themselves this week. I wanted everybody down in Athens telling them how great they are."

If anyone understands how hard it can be to perform at your best two weeks in a row within the Southeastern Conference - and it would be hard to perform better than Georgia did in last Saturday's 27-6 dismantling of then-No. 8 Auburn - it might be Swain, who was a key member of a Tennessee team that upset a similarly gifted Georgia bunch between UGA's famed hedges in 2004, winning 19-14 to snap a 17-game Bulldogs home winning streak.

Played on October 9th of that year - this weekend's game between the Vols and Dawgs will be Oct. 10 - Georgia was coming off a resounding 45-16 rout of defending SEC champ LSU.

Tennessee, on the other hand, was trying to bounce back from a 34-10 loss to Auburn, which might explain why the Dawgs were 12.5-point favorites. Beyond that, the Vols were ranked No. 17 to UGA's No. 3.

Now fast-forward to this season. No, UT isn't coming off a double-digit loss, but rather a 35-12 victory over Missouri. But they are ranked 14th to Georgia's - drum roll, please - No. 3. And the first betting lines released on Monday had the Bulldogs favored by 13 points. Twilight Zone music, anyone?

"We always felt like we were better than that," recalled Swain. "We'd just made a bunch of turnovers against Auburn. Once we got that worked out, once we were all on the same page on offense, we felt like we could be pretty good."

Then-freshman Erik Ainge was more than pretty good in tossing two touchdowns with no picks after throwing four interceptions and losing a fumble a week earlier against Auburn. And none of his 12 completions against the Dawgs was bigger than a late 20-yard toss to Swain that secured a first down on a 1st-and-15 play.

"It was a comeback route," said Swain, a sophomore at the time. "I caught it against Tim Jennings, who wound up in the NFL. It helped eat up some valuable clock."

It ultimately helped Tennessee win the SEC East before falling again to undefeated, under-appreciated Auburn in the SEC title game.

But to water down any expectations for this Saturday, the Bulldogs have eaten up the Vols for the past three seasons, winning by an average score of 40.7 to 8.7.

To show what third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt thinks of the current Bulldogs, he said during a Zoom call on Monday: "I think it's one of the better teams that I've seen in college football over the last couple of years."

And if Saturday's game was going to be determined by games played to date, it's hard to fault the experts for making Georgia the heavy favorite.

Still, games are won and lost on the field. They're won during the week in practice and they're won for a variety of reasons that aren't easily assessed on film. On the week before that 2004 game, Georgia QB David Greene threw for five touchdowns against a No. 13 LSU squad. Against the Vols he threw none, then said, "I can't explain it."

Remembered Swain of that 2004 victory, "We always had a lot of guys from Georgia on our roster. It really meant something to them to win that game. I'll never forget (linebacker) Kevin Burnett and some of the other Georgia guys clipping off pieces of the hedges to take home as a souvenir."

Of the 129 players listed on the Vols roster as of Monday evening - including numerous walk-ons and redshirts - 25 hail from the Peach State this season. The only state with more is understandably the Volunteer State with 51.

Whether that will make a similar difference this coming Saturday to what transpired in 2004 remains to be seen. Asked if he saw a similarity in the two games, UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer admitted, "I hadn't really thought about it. I don't remember all that much about that game other than (Sanford Stadium) was a great place to play great."

So can the Big Orange play great enough to get its biggest victory yet under Pruitt? Can it look to a game that pits two teams with similar rankings and a similar point spread to one played in the same venue 16 years ago and duplicate that shocking victory?

Will a far less full Sanford Stadium make for a far less intimidating atmosphere for the Vols and a far less inspiring one for the Bulldogs?

"I don't think it's a great matchup for Tennessee," admitted Swain, who hosts a sports call-in show, "The Swain Event," each weekday from 7 to 10 a.m. on various internet platforms. "I'd rather they'd played the first game of the year when Georgia was still trying to figure out its quarterback. If Georgia plays its best and Tennessee plays its best, Georgia should win. But you never know."

For proof, just return to this same matchup in 2004.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

photo Mark Wiedmer