Paschall: Georgia immune to the landslides plaguing Vols

Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia sophomore receiver Dillon Bell (86) had five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown during Saturday's 38-10 win at Tennessee, and he also threw an 18-yard scoring pass.
Georgia photo by Tony Walsh / Georgia sophomore receiver Dillon Bell (86) had five catches for 90 yards and a touchdown during Saturday's 38-10 win at Tennessee, and he also threw an 18-yard scoring pass.

Saturday's football result inside Neyland Stadium reflected a pair of continuing trends.

The Georgia Bulldogs have start-of-the-game problems, while the Tennessee Volunteers have rest-of-the-game issues.

Georgia's thorough 38-10 victory in Knoxville was even more impressive given that it was 38-3 following the first play from scrimmage. Jaylen Wright's 75-yard touchdown sprint on the inaugural snap was pleasing to the home folks, but it marked the fifth consecutive contest in which the Bulldogs allowed a touchdown on their opponent's opening possession.

The Bulldogs have won their past five games over Vanderbilt, Florida, Missouri, Ole Miss and Tennessee by an average of 24.4 points, but they have fallen behind by a combined 35-3. Opponents have racked up a whopping 366 yards on 32 plays during the opening drives in Georgia's last five contests, an average of 11.44 yards per snap.

"We get a lot of practice at it, and I'm serious," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Saturday night when asked about opponents scoring early. "That doesn't bother us, because we know we can fix it, and there is a lot of confidence when they jog to the sideline. It's like, 'Take a deep breath. We'll get it fixed,' and the kids believe in that.

"A lot of teams, when that landslide happens — we're good. We just want to go fix it."

Perhaps Smart was catching himself with the "landslide" reference, because Tennessee could easily fit that description. In their four defeats this year against Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Georgia, the Vols have scored five first-half touchdowns and one second-half touchdown, with that coming on Sept. 16 in Gainesville.

Stratospheric scoring and Josh Heupel have been synonymous in recent years — his three UCF teams and first two Tennessee teams ranked in the top 10 nationally, with last year's Vols leading the country with 46.1 points per contest — but Tennessee's past two games have yielded a 36-7 loss at Missouri, Saturday's setback and a lot of searching for answers.

"It's been a long time since we've looked at scoreboards the way we have this year," Heupel said. "It's really disappointing that we haven't been able to find a way to put more points on the board and help this team win."

The Vols averaged a healthy 45.8 points per contest against their nonconference quartet of Virginia, Austin Peay, UTSA and Connecticut but are averaging 21.0 points against their seven Southeastern Conference foes entering Saturday's regular-season finale against visiting Vanderbilt.

Injuries certainly have factored into Tennessee's offensive struggles, with the Vols playing down the stretch without receivers Bru McCoy and Dont'e Thornton and without tackles Gerald Mincey and John Campbell Jr. They have been equally ravaged defensively — the Vols have given up more than 6.5 yards per play in their past three conference games against Kentucky, Mizzou and Georgia — with linebackers Keenan Pili and Arion Carter sidelined along with defensive backs Kamal Hadden, Tamarion McDonald and Wesley Walker.

"We're banged up, but this game doesn't care about that," Heupel rightly said Saturday, because Georgia wouldn't be one to offer much sympathy.

As for those who were clamoring for Heupel to replace sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III with freshman Nico Iamaleava on Saturday, what would be the point? Tennessee's offensive line is a mess right now, and feeding Iamaleava to the Bulldogs?

Ask Dan Mullen how that worked at Florida two years ago when he started Anthony Richardson for the first time in Jacksonville.

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Georgia on Saturday became the first team to defeat Tennessee seven consecutive times by at least two touchdowns.

Alabama under Nick Saban produced six such outcomes from 2016 to 2021 before the Vols pulled out last season's 52-49 thriller. Saban's Crimson Tide also had five straight triumphs over the Vols by at least two touchdowns from 2010 to 2014.

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Florida fifth-year senior quarterback Graham Mertz suffered a "non-displaced fracture of the collarbone" during Saturday night's 33-31 loss at Missouri, according to Gators coach Billy Napier.

The graduate transfer from Wisconsin suffered the injury during an aggressive run for a first down.

"What a competitor," Napier said. "If Gator Nation doesn't respect Graham Mertz after watching him compete this year, then we've got a problem. This kid has been everything you would want from a competitor."

Mertz has completed 261 of 358 passes (72.9%) this season for 2,903 yards with 20 touchdowns and three interceptions.

If you had told me those 11-game numbers back in August, I would have expected the Gators to be 9-2 entering this week's rivalry game against visiting Florida State. Instead, the Gators are 5-6.

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The SEC continues to receive respect when it comes to the Associated Press poll, with the league having six of its 14 members ranked Sunday afternoon.

The conference has the highest-ranked undefeated team (No. 1 Georgia) as well as the highest-ranked two-loss (No. 10 Missouri), three-loss (No. 14 LSU) and four-loss (No. 25 Tennessee) teams. The top one-loss team is Oregon at No. 6, with the Ducks immediately followed by Texas and Alabama.

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Nothing can deflate Iron Bowl hype like a 21-point loss to New Mexico State.

Auburn's 31-10 succumbing to Jerry Kill's Aggies on Saturday afternoon inside Jordan-Hare Stadium may be the most inexplicable loss in program history. The Tigers typically lose to the Alabamas, Georgias and LSUs of the world and avoid embarrassments, with the only similar instances being a 28-27 loss at Memphis in 1976 and a 26-23 home loss in overtime to South Florida in 2007.

That 1976 Memphis team went 7-4 and defeated Florida State and first-year coach Bobby Bowden as well as Ole Miss, which wound up upsetting both Alabama and Georgia. USF in 2007 actually climbed to No. 2 in the country midway through that season, so Saturday has to take the cake.

"Our university deserves a better effort than that, and that's my job to make sure they give that, and we did not today," Auburn first-year coach Hugh Freeze said. "You're not going to execute if you're not giving great effort. I thought our receivers ran routes in slow motion. We didn't protect well. There is nothing positive that I can say about today.

"You feel like it's a bad dream."

New Mexico State improved to 9-3 with a win that can't be considered a fluke, given that the Aggies outgained the Tigers 414-213 and went 4-for-4 in red-zone opportunities. Auburn never ventured into the red zone.

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Kentucky and South Carolina are expected to be permanent rivals no matter what scheduling format the SEC adopts. The two played for the final time Saturday night as Eastern Division foes, with the Gamecocks capitalizing on three Wildcats turnovers to prevail 17-14.

"That was a very difficult loss for us right there," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said after his Wildcats slid to 6-5 with a fifth loss in six games. "We had our opportunities, and it just didn't happen."

Stoops is now 7-8 overall and 3-7 in SEC play since receiving a contract extension last November that was accompanied by a pay bump to $9 million.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.