Tennessee-Georgia rivalry is one of the most entertaining SEC feuds in recent years

Tennessee-Georgia rivalry is one of the most entertaining SEC feuds in recent years

September 29th, 2017 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia's Reggie Davis had a 70-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 24-3 lead at Tennessee two seasons ago, but quarterback Josh Dobbs accounted for five touchdowns while leading the Vols to a 38-31 comeback triumph.

Photo by John Kelley Jr.

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ATHENS, Ga. — The Alabama-Auburn game, more commonly known as the Iron Bowl, is the most recognized rivalry in Southeastern Conference football.

The Georgia-Florida game occurs around Halloween each year with the tickets divided evenly, and each November there is the Golden Egg Trophy for the Ole Miss-Mississippi State winner and the Golden Boot Trophy for the LSU-Arkansas winner.

The Tennessee-Georgia game doesn't have a fancy nickname or an award for its winner, but there has been no greater SEC rivalry recently when it comes to close calls and sheer entertainment.

"All my experiences with Tennessee have been close games," Georgia senior running back Sony Michel said this week. "We've always got to prepare for a four-quarter game and a hard-nosed game. This game is going to go to the fourth quarter, so we've got to start off fast and finish strong."

When Saturday afternoon's game between the No. 7 Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0) and Volunteers (3-1, 0-1) kicks off at Neyland Stadium shortly after 3:30 on CBS, it will have a lot to live up to.

The past five meetings between the two most storied programs in the SEC East — Tennessee ranks a distant second to Alabama with 13 all-time league titles, while Georgia is next with 12 — have each been decided by a touchdown or less. Last year's outcome wasn't known until Jauan Jennings snagged a 43-yard Hail Mary from Josh Dobbs as time expired for a 34-31 Volunteers victory in Sanford Stadium.

"I know it's been a great rivalry, obviously, over a number of years," fifth-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "These are two great programs with storied traditions, and when you look at the last four years, three of the games have been decided by three points or less, and the other has been decided by seven points. Usually it comes down to the final possession, and it's been a type of game where you have to be mentally tough and be able to withstand the emotional ebbs and flows of a long football game."

Throw in Georgia's 20-12 win in Knoxville in 2011, and this is the only active rivalry in the SEC with six consecutive one-possession games, but the fun really began in 2012:

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» In the highest-scoring game in series history, Georgia outlasted Tennessee 51-44 in 2012 behind 294 combined rushing yards by Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley and 286 passing yards by Aaron Murray. The two teams played to a 30-30 standoff after a dizzying first half, and Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray had a disastrous final six minutes with two interceptions and a lost fumble.

» Georgia built a 17-3 halftime lead in its 34-31 overtime road win in 2013 but lost Marshall and receivers Michael Bennett and Justin Scott-Wesley along the way. The Vols surged to a 31-24 lead with 1:54 remaining in regulation, but that was just enough time for Murray to lead a 10-play, 75-yard tying drive. After Alton "Pig" Howard fumbled while trying to cross the goal line in Tennessee's overtime possession, Georgia went conservative and used a Marshall Morgan 42-yard field goal to win it.

» The Bulldogs erased an early 10-0 deficit in their 35-32 triumph in Athens in 2014, when Gurley rushed for 208 yards and salted away the final 2:14 after Tennessee had pulled within three on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Justin Worley to Marquez North.

» Georgia running back Nick Chubb tore multiple knee ligaments on the first play of the game two years ago, but Tennessee still seemed all but cooked with a 24-3 deficit late in the second quarter. That's when Dobbs caught fire against his home-state school and riddled the Bulldogs for 312 passing yards, 118 rushing yards and five total touchdowns in a 38-31 Tennessee triumph. The game ended with Georgia's Greyson Lambert throwing incomplete to Malcolm Mitchell at the goal line.

» Last year's showdown had yet another misleading early score as the Bulldogs bolted to a 17-0 lead before Dobbs wound up accounting for four more touchdowns. A 47-yard touchdown pass from Jacob Eason to Riley Ridley with 10 seconds remaining put Georgia up 31-27, but the Bulldogs were penalized 15 yards after Rico McGraw ran on the field without a helmet while celebrating. An Evan Berry kickoff return into Georgia territory gave Dobbs and Jennings the connecting distance they needed.

The Hail Mary resulted in each team scoring in the 30s, making Tennessee-Georgia the first rivalry in SEC history to have five straight outcomes with both teams scoring more than 30 points.

"I'm not really sure why that is," Georgia fifth-year senior defensive back Aaron Davis said. "Every year is a different year, and you never know what you're going to get. It's been a high-scoring game, but it could be a low-scoring game for the next six years. You don't really know until you get in the game.

"I know the atmosphere is always wild when we play Tennessee. We'll just have to see what happens."

There have been multiple lead changes in each of the past five meetings, including two in the final 10 seconds in last year's thriller. Tennessee's wins the past two seasons have enabled the Vols to take a 23-21-2 series lead against their rivals to the immediate south.

The Bulldogs are 7.5-point favorites Saturday after last week's 31-3 dismantling of Mississippi State coupled with Tennessee's mundane 17-13 escape of Massachusetts, so it could be up to the Vols to keep this one entertaining.

Georgia players hope that won't be the case.

"All I know is that our defense is going to come out to play," Bulldogs center Lamont Gaillard said, "and that our offense is going to come out and put some points up."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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