Vols seek to stop Smart’s ninth straight win in Neyland

Tennessee Athletics photo / Quarterback Joe Milton and the Tennessee Volunteers will try to extend a 14-game winning streak at Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon when they host Georgia, which was the last team to defeat the Vols in Knoxville.

Georgia football coach Kirby Smart needs no introduction to Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.

Smart never defeated the Volunteers as a Bulldogs safety, which included trips to Knoxville in 1995 and 1997, and he was on the losing side as well in 1999, when his first job after being cut by the NFL's Indianapolis Colts was as a Georgia administrative assistant under Jim Donnan. His first celebration in Neyland came as Georgia's running backs coach under Mark Richt in 2005, and he has since enjoyed significant success both as Alabama's defensive coordinator under Nick Saban and as Georgia's head coach.

Entering Saturday afternoon's showdown (3:30 on CBS) between the No. 1 Bulldogs and the No. 21 Vols, Smart has followed his three early losses inside Neyland with eight consecutive wins, but he isn't about to take anything for granted with his latest venture into the 101,915-seat facility.

"Neyland presents one of the toughest environments in the country in terms of noise," Smart said. "The setup of the stadium is unique. It's really vertical, and it feels like they're right on top of you. It's not as leaned back. It's right there on you.

"They have very passionate fans, and that all makes it tough."

Smart has defeated Tennessee teams coached by Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt and Josh Heupel inside Neyland by the average score of 42-10, but Heupel's Vols electrified the stadium two years ago by embarking on 10-play, 77-yard and 13-play, 76-yard drives during the first quarter to take a 10-7 lead. The Bulldogs quickly erased that slim deficit with a 17-0 second-quarter surge and won going away 41-17, and they prevailed 27-13 last season in Athens after Tennessee had ascended to the top of the College Football Playoff rankings.

If the teams repeat their performances from a week ago, this matchup will not be close, with Georgia having demolished Ole Miss 52-17 and with Tennessee having been hammered 36-7 at Missouri. The Bulldogs racked up 611 yards against the Rebels, amassing 311 through the air and 300 on the ground.

"They're a really good football team," Heupel said. "They were good at the beginning of the year, and they've continued to get better throughout the course of the season, which is what good teams do."

Tennessee's defensive statistics took a hit after Mizzou racked up 530 yards a week ago, but that's where Smart believes the Vols are most improved compared to the past two seasons. The Vols yielded 421.7 yards per game two years ago, 405.3 last season and are allowing 340.6 through 10 games this year.

"The improvement in their defense is because they have more experienced players in their system," Smart said. "They've got a lot of players, to me, who have been playing two, three or four years. A lot of playing defense is the experiences you've had, and you've played in these big moments.

"They have talented players. They have more size across the defensive line, and they play with great pad level. They've improved immensely in terms of how aggressive they are."

Tennessee enters this ranked pairing having won 14 consecutive games at Neyland Stadium, while Georgia is 19-0 under Smart in road games against SEC East teams. This will be Georgia's final game against an East foe, with the Southeastern Conference doing away with divisions in 2024.

Heupel is hoping Neyland can provide a helping hand in the Bulldogs losing their divisional finale.

"I expect it to be as electric of an atmosphere as we've ever had here, which is as good as there is in college football," Heupel said. "We need to make it extremely difficult for them to communicate."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.