Photo via Tennessee Athletics
National and regional media talked all week about Kentucky being a trap game for No. 3 Tennessee ahead of next Saturday’s showdown against No. 1 Georgia.
If it was a trap, Tennessee strayed far away. The Vols weren’t perfect but were poised from the jump on their way to dominating No. 19 Kentucky, 44-6, Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.
“No,” Heupel said on whether he felt his team looking past the Wildcats this week. “These guys, the reasons we have found a way to be on the right side of it every week is because they have been focused, they have prepared, they have practiced, and they get themselves ready emotionally and physically to play hard once the ball is kicked off, all week long. I thought we were very dialed in and locked into the process.”
Tennessee’s offense was far from its best against Kentucky failing to capitalize on a pair of Wildcat turnovers while not living up to its near impossible standard in the red zone.
However, if Tennessee’s defense wasn’t at its best it was as good as its been this season. The Vols humiliated projected NFL top 10 draft pick Will Levis. The Kentucky quarterback failed to throw for 100 yards while tossing three interceptions.
Kentucky’s offense totaled just six yards in the second half before adding 51 yards against the Vols’ mop up duty defense late in the fourth quarter.
While Tennessee’s offense wasn’t at its best, they still put up 44 points and “did enough to score enough points to get a good win” as Heupel noted postgame.
The result was a 38-point drubbing and Tennessee’s fifth ranked win of the season. That performance should boost Tennessee to the top spot in the College Football Playoff committee’s inaugural rankings released Tuesday night.
The Vols are one of four unbeaten power five teams along with Georgia, Ohio State and TCU. Tennessee leads the way with five ranked wins. The Horned Frogs are close behind with four while Ohio State (two) and Georgia (one) don’t come close.
If you look at wins over current ranked teams, Tennessee leads the way with three. TCU and Georgia are close behind with two — though the Bulldogs will be back at one once South Carolina falls out of the polls — and Ohio State has one.
The Vols have the best win in the country, more quality wins than any other team and pass any eye test.
There’s arguments to be made that Tennessee isn’t the nation’s best team — Georgia and Ohio State would both be favored over UT on a neutral field. But there’s no argument who has the best resume. That’s how the CFB Playoff committee ranks teams.
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But Tuesday’s CFB Playoff rankings don’t matter. What matters is next Saturday’s clash of titans in Athens. A phenomenal chance to pit the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams against each other, whoever exits Sanford Stadium with a victory will be the nation’s No. 1 team and more importantly will all but secure the SEC east title.
“That’s what you live for,” Tennessee receiver Jalin Hyatt said postgame. “You live for games like that and you know we are going to bring our all for Georgia.”
It’s not only what big time players live for but it’s what Tennessee’s been working for all offseason. When Hendon Hooker told Heupel he’s returning for one final season, the second year head coach told him “Let’s go to Atlanta.”
To get to Atlanta, Tennessee must slay the giant 72 miles east of it. Georgia’s become the class of the SEC east, winning five of the last six division titled culminating in the 2022 National Championship.
“A championship,” Hooker said of what Tennessee’s chasing. “We want to win the SEC Championship. That’s our goal— to be playing in Atlanta at the end of the season.”
Even Heupel — who always lives in the moment and rarely looks ahead — couldn’t help but take a peak forward to next week’s clash.
“Certainly, it’s going to be a big ball game, great football team,” Heupel said. “The players will enjoy it when they get back on Monday. Staff will turn it around early tomorrow morning. We understand it’s a really good football team we are getting ready to play. These are the type of games, you come to Tennessee because you want to be on this type of stage, you want to play in front of an audience that’s going to be captivated by these two football teams.”
The battle between the unbeatens will captivate the nation. Tennessee should be No. 1. Georgia should be No. 2. The matchup has all the makings of a game of the century level showdown.