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University of Georgia photo / Georgia linebacker Channing Tindall celebrates a stop of Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker during Saturday's 41-17 win by the Bulldogs inside Neyland Stadium

Think of how many times this college football season when you've noticed a Southeastern Conference team backtrack.

Maybe it lasted just a week, such as Alabama's 20-14 escape of LSU earlier this month when the Crimson Tide rushed for 6 yards. Maybe it was a two-game tailspin like Auburn is enduring, or perhaps it's as lengthy as what Florida has shockingly experienced since being nestled in the national top 10 back in September.

Now think about Saturday's showdown between Georgia and Tennessee inside Neyland Stadium, where the No. 1 Bulldogs pulled away to comfortably win 41-17. At no point this season have the Bulldogs and Volunteers taken a step back, even though their 10-0 and 5-5 records obviously reflect very different stages of success.

Georgia's triumph capped the program's first 8-0 run through SEC play, and the Bulldogs accomplished that by the average score of 40-8.

When asked Saturday about the point he knew when former walk-on quarterback Stetson Bennett would be equipped enough to lead the Bulldogs in their hunt for a national championship, coach Kirby Smart said, "We're worried about Charleston Southern right now."

Aren't we all?

As for the Vols, playing 10 straight games under first-year coach Josh Heupel without a noticeable or even a marginal slip in performance is quite the feat. Tennessee became the first team to lead Georgia by a touchdown this season, and the score was 10-10 at the midway mark of the second quarter.

"At the end of the day, I think we've shown as a football team that we've gotten better throughout the course of the season," Heupel said. "It's true defensively, and it's true offensively. Tonight wasn't our best football, and I don't want to take anything away from Georgia, because they're really good in all three phases of the game, but we could do better on the things we can control.

"Our kids aren't scared of walking out on the football field against anybody, and neither are our coaches. We're going to continue to recruit and continue to build the right culture inside the building. We'll be in more of these games, and we'll end up on the right side of them, too, as we grow."

Unfortunately for Heupel, keeping up with Smart's Bulldogs may be easier on the field than in recruiting.

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Tennessee redshirt junior receiver Cedric Tillman entered this season with eight career catches for 124 yards.

On Saturday, the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from Las Vegas racked up 10 catches for 200 yards and a touchdown against the nation's top-rated defense.

"It's a great lesson for everybody inside of our program," Heupel said. "Those who put the most into it get the most out of it. He's been really consistent in his approach and his behavior every day inside of our building. That's why he's gained confidence and why he's playing with great confidence."

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Has any SEC program had a stranger season to evaluate than Texas A&M?

The Aggies finished fifth in last year's College Football Playoff rankings, just missing out on the sport's ultimate event, and the narrative entering this season was whether they could finally break through against Alabama. Jimbo Fisher's Aggies accomplished that goal with a 41-38 triumph on Oct. 9, but what wasn't in their preseason script was losing to Arkansas for the first time as an SEC member and falling to both Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Lane Kiffin's Rebels saddled Texas A&M with a 29-19 defeat Saturday night inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, leaving the Aggies 7-3 overall and 4-3 in league competition.

"We've still got two games left," Fisher said, "so we've got to battle up and go play."

While Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Texas A&M have taken turns in recent weeks as that potential third-best SEC team behind No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama, that pendulum seems to have swung back to the Rebels. The win over the Aggies improved Ole Miss to 8-2 overall and to No. 10 in the Associated Press poll, making the Rebels the nation's highest-ranked two-loss team.

"I'm not saying we're great, but this was a step closer from good to great," Kiffin said. "That was a team that was playing as well as anybody in the country."

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AP photo by Rogelio V. Solis / Ole Miss running back Jerrion Ealy runs past Texas A&M defensive backs Antonio Johnson (27) and Demani Richardson (26) for a first down during Saturday night's matchup of SEC West teams in Oxford, Miss.

Apparently Nick Saban critiquing Alabama and a media member critiquing his team are two very different things.

After Saturday's 59-3 demolishing of New Mexico State, he was asked about the Tide's slow — albeit temporary — start that resulted in a 3-0 Aggies lead.

"You've really got to be digging deep," Saban said. "What was the Florida score today against Samford? You want me to be critical of my team because we had to punt it once in the first quarter and they got a field goal?

"I'm not going to be critical of anything that our players did when we win 59-3."

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Auburn has gone from controlling its fate in the SEC West race to being a team that can't function offensively after halftime.

In the past three second halves against Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Mississippi State, Bryan Harsin's Tigers have tallied only nine combined points. In Saturday's 43-34 loss to Mississippi State, a matchup Auburn led 28-3 in the second quarter, the Tigers had minus-14 rushing yards in the second half while allowing 271 passing yards.

"It comes back to execution, and we're not as consistent in the second half," Harsin said. "We've got to continue attacking in the second half as aggressively as we do in the first half. I know that defenses make adjustments, but you also have a pretty good idea of what they might do.

"You still have quite a few plays left on your call sheet that are good, but we didn't extend drives and we didn't keep attacking."

Auburn will have to move forward without junior quarterback Bo Nix, who broke his ankle in Saturday's setback.

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Vanderbilt had to combat coronavirus-related issues late last season that resulted in the cancellation of the finale at Georgia, and now the Commodores are dealing with the flu. First-year coach Clark Lea said after Saturday's 34-17 loss to Kentucky that up to 12 players were affected, including two who didn't dress out.

"I'm proud of the way this team toughed through that," Lea said. "There were guys who we've counted on for a lot of snaps who laid in bed all day yesterday."

Kentucky built a 31-3 halftime lead before coasting to a seventh win that also resulted in Vandy's 19th consecutive SEC loss with Ole Miss and Tennessee next in line.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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