ATHENS, Ga. — The inclement weather that rocked much of the Deep South held off Saturday afternoon when it came to the top-15 college football showdown between Georgia and Tennessee.
The unrelenting defense of the Bulldogs did not.
After surrendering a pair of first-half touchdown passes from Jarrett Guarantano to Josh Palmer, the No. 3 Bulldogs smothered the No. 14 Volunteers in the second half to turn a 21-17 deficit into a 44-21 rout before an announced crowd of 20,524 at Sanford Stadium. A fifth sack of Guarantano on the game's final play resulted in the Vols finishing with minus-1 rushing yard to accompany three second-half turnovers and 10 total penalties for 84 yards.
"Give credit to Georgia. They really outplayed us in the second half," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "You can't turn the ball over three times against anybody and expect to win. To win in this league, you have to be able to run the ball, and we didn't run the ball today."
Saturday's setback ended Tennessee's eight-game winning streak and extended the Vols' losing streak against Associated Press top-10 teams to 34.
The double-digit triumph was Georgia's fourth consecutive in this series and, coupled with Florida's loss Saturday at Texas A&M, placed the Bulldogs alone in first place in their quest for a fourth straight Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship. A prequel to the projected SEC title game pairing of Alabama and Georgia will take place next Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Tuscaloosa.
"I certainly didn't expect this game to go that way," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "It didn't start the way we wanted it to, but the positive was that we didn't blink."
The play that most defined Georgia's second-half dominance occurred with 9:56 remaining in the game, when Bulldogs senior linebacker Monty Rice stripped Guarantano of the ball and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown that made it 44-21. At that precise point of the second half, which was a healthy 20-minute sample, the Vols had 5 total yards and the three turnovers.
Tennessee's first two turnovers in the second half led to Jack Podlesny field goals and a 23-21 Georgia advantage, but Stetson Bennett's 21-yard touchdown pass to Kearis Jackson with 35 seconds left in the third quarter provided Georgia the first two-possession lead of the game at 30-21. The Vols tallied just 14 third-quarter yards.
"They just did a great job of coming out in the second half and beating us," Vols sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o said.
Georgia opened Saturday's game with a 5-yard carry by Zamir White, but Bulldogs center Trey Hill snapped the ball way over Bennett's head on the second play, causing both teams to head toward the goal line. Bennett bobbled the ball inside the 5 before White and tight end John FitzPatrick collided, causing the ball to continue to squirt free before Vols linebacker Kivon Bennett pounced on it for the touchdown and a quick 7-0 lead.
The Bulldogs pulled even midway through the first quarter when a 29-yard pass from Bennett to Kenny McIntosh set up a 1-yard touchdown run by White. Bennett's 8-yard scoring scramble at the 11:42 mark of the second quarter gave the Bulldogs their first lead at 14-7 and capped a 12-play, 95-yard possession that consumed six minutes and 15 seconds.
Just when it looked as if Tennessee might be getting overwhelmed midway through the second quarter, the Vols stopped the Bulldogs on fourth-and-short at Georgia's 36-yard line. On the ensuing play, Guarantano and Palmer connected for a 36-yard touchdown to produce a 14-14 deadlock.
Guarantano and Palmer hooked up again for a 27-yard scoring strike with 3:08 before halftime to give Tennessee its 21-17 lead, an advantage the Vols preserved on the final play of the half by stopping White short of the goal line on fourth-and-inches.
"If you don't go for it on fourth-and-1 at the goal, what are you telling your team?" Smart said. "That decision was made for me 20 years ago. The analytics would have absolutely slaughtered me for kicking a field goal, especially in a game that was shaping up to be high scoring."
Said Pruitt: "We're sitting there with the lead at halftime, but you've got to go play the second half. We had an opportunity to do that, but we couldn't sustain anything offensively.
Tennessee's advantage at intermission transpired despite Georgia holding overwhelming edges in total plays (44 to 24), total yards (225 to 143) and time of possession (19:20 to 10:40). The Bulldogs wound up with 431 total yards to just 214 by the Vols.
"We created a couple of explosive plays in the first half," Pruitt said, "but in the second half, we didn't control the line of scrimmage and played behind the sticks. They got some pressures on our quarterback, and a couple of those times we had people blocking them, but they beat us on one on ones.
"We threw a pick that was an ill-advised throw, and you just can't do stuff like that. It's pretty simple."