ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Tennessee wants to re-establish its place among the Southeastern Conference elite.
Georgia might have something to say about that.
No 14 Tennessee brings an eight-game winning streak into Saturday’s showdown against third-ranked Georgia, which has won the last three SEC East titles and certainly has the talent to claim another.
“Our team has continued to improve over the last couple of years and we’ve got to continue to do that,” Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt. “We’re nowhere (near) where we want to be.”
Tennessee (2-0) desperately needs a signature victory. None of its eight straight wins came against a ranked opponent. The last three times the Vols faced a Top 10 team, they were outscored by a combined 112-30.
Running back Ty Chandler didn’t sound intimidated.
“A respectable opponent,” he said. “They have a tough defense, they’re known for that, and I think everyone is looking forward to it. It’s just another game for us, but as long as we focus in on our details and do our job, I feel like we can be great.”
The Bulldogs (2-0) are coming off a 27-6 thrashing of then-No. 7 Auburn in the first top 10 matchup of the college football season.
It was a complete performance, led by a defense that has surrendered only one touchdown and 16 points in the first two games.
“If you had to define a great defense, it would be relentless effort. It would be reckless abandon. It would be constant pressure and pursuit,” coach Kirby Smart said. “We’ve done a good job of that.”
The coach is still smarting over the performance in last year’s game at Knoxville, even though the Bulldogs pulled away for a 43-14 victory.
“We probably played one of our worst defensive games,” Smart said. “When you look at it in terms of tackling, getting pushed around, big plays, it just was not indicative of who we are and who we want to be.”
Some things to watch for when Georgia hosts Tennessee between the hedges:
After being buried on the depth chart much of his career, fourth-year junior Stetson Bennett has suddenly emerged as Georgia’s best option at quarterback.
Bennett came off the bench in the opener after D’Wan Mathis struggled, rallying Georgia from a halftime deficit to a 37-10 victory.
In Week 2, Bennett made his first college start and turned in another efficient performance, completing 17 of 28 for 240 yards and a touchdown against Auburn.
Bennett is likely on a short leash. If the Bulldogs struggle offensively, Smart won’t hesitate to give Mathis another chance or turn to former Southern Cal starter JT Daniels.
For now, though, Bennett is the man.
“He’s always been able to give our defense trouble in practice,” safety Chris Smith said. “His time has come.”
MAYS VS GEORGIA
Offensive linemen rarely get noticed.
That won’t be the case Saturday.
Cade Mays will start at right tackle for Tennessee, adding another juicy chapter to an SEC soap opera.
Mays played the last two seasons at Georgia, but he transferred to Tennessee amid some apparent hard feelings.
An attorney who helped Mays win an appeal to play right away for the Volunteers said he left Athens because of a “toxic environment.” Also, his parents sued Georgia for an incident two years ago in which the lineman’s father lost part of his little finger after it was caught in a chair at a recruits’ dinner.
“All I can say about him is he’s no longer with us,” Smart said. “He’s a really good football player and one of the toughest players I’ve been around. I look forward to the matchup.”
Tennessee has two of the SEC’s top rushers at this early stage of the season.
Chandler leads the league with 176 yards while averaging 5.5 yards each time he gets the ball. Sophomore Eric Gray has chipped in with 145 yards, also picking up more than 5 yards per carry while ranking eighth in the league. Overall, the Vols are second in the league at 182.5 yards per game.
Tennessee’s ground attack is clicking so well that senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has rushed for three TDs. He had one for his career coming into this season.
FLIPPING THE FIELD
If the game bogs down into a defensive struggle — certainly a possibility with a forecast that calls for potentially heavy rain — Georgia has a valuable weapon on special teams.
Punter Jake Camarda leads the nation with a 50.2-yard average and ranks fifth in net punting at 45.8, the sort of numbers that can dramatically alter field position. Six of his nine punts have been placed inside the opponent’s 20.
The Vols struggled in the secondary in last week’s victory over Missouri.
They gave up 218 yards passing at 8.7 yards per pass attempt. Worse, they gave up five pass plays of 19 yards or longer, giving the receivers far too much space to operate.
Pruitt knows the Vols have to cut down on the big plays, especially against a team of Georgia’s caliber.
“We need to improve with our eyes,” he said. “We have to be looking at the right stuff.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville contributed to this report.