Big Game Hunting: No. 1 Tennessee (really?) aims to turn the tables on mighty Georgia

The Vols, led by QB Hendon Hooker, still have to prove they can outscore the superpowers like Joe Burrow and LSU did in 2019.

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Georgia v Tennessee

QB Hendon Hooker and Tennessee got out to a 10-7 lead on Georgia last year in Knoxville, but the title-bound Bulldogs dominated from there.

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Top 25 voters looked at Georgia’s 8-0 record, considered that seven of those eight wins have come by at least three scores, took into account the program’s status as defending national champion as well as its blistering 26-1 mark since midway through the 2020 season, and did the usual: They voted the Bulldogs No. 1.

But the College Football Playoff selection committee? Nope, no way, no, sir. In its first rankings of the season, released Tuesday, that all-powerful group had 8-0 Tennessee at No. 1, followed by 8-0 Ohio State at No. 2 and little ol’ Georgia at No. 3.

So, who got it right? No. 1 Tennessee at No. 3 Georgia (2:30 p.m., Ch. 2) comes right on time to enlighten us. As is its custom, this column will use CFP rankings from here on out because — it ain’t complicated — they’re the ones that matter.

“Both teams, I’m sure, are confident,” Volunteers coach Josh Heupel said, “and should be.”

You might remember Heupel from Oklahoma’s 2000 season, when he was the Heisman Trophy runner-up at quarterback. But those Sooners won it all because of their defense, which — incredibly, to this day — shut out Florida State’s No. 1-ranked offense in the national championship game.

Heupel’s Vols are led by QB Hendon Hooker — who has talent Heupel could only dream of having — and a top-ranked offense so spectacular through eight games, comparisons are being made to Joe Burrow and LSU in 2019. How do you blow past Georgia and Alabama in the SEC? It takes an all-time-great offense, apparently. LSU had that, with Burrow dropping dimes to un-coverable Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase. Tennessee, with Hooker the Heisman front-runner and Jalin Hyatt catching long touchdown passes seemingly at will, still has to prove it does.

“A lot of guys just have a lot of talent and have so much to prove and so much to show,” Hooker said. “We have a lot of ambition as well.”

Everybody knows how fast and furiously Georgia plays defense, how rock-solid QB Stetson Bennett is, how freakish tight end Brock Bowers is, how the Dogs send in running back after running back who moves like an NFL guy. The Vols “D” — not bad by any means — gives up 50% more yards per game, the entire difference coming through the air. And Georgia has beaten Tennessee five years in a row, the closest of those games a 23-point laugher.

What the heck was the playoff committee thinking? And where the heck do the Vols get off thinking they can hold their own with — let alone upset — the champs on the road?

“I haven’t convinced them,” Heupel said. “They’ve convinced themselves.”

Beam me up, Scotty — I’m ready to be convinced, too. Rocky Top, 37-34.


No. 2 Ohio State (-38) at Northwestern (11 a.m., Ch. 7, 1160-AM): These Buckeyes roll out of bed and have two touchdowns on the board before their feet touch the floor. Is there any way Northwestern can stop them from scoring at will? A similar mismatch at Ryan Field in 2019 ended with Justin Fields and friends ahead 52-3. Come on, this one won’t be that bad. Go Bucks, 52-6.

Iowa (+3½) at Purdue (11 a.m., FS1): Jeff Brohm has owned Kirk Ferentz to the tune of a 4-1 record, and what’s interesting about it is the Boilermakers’ defenses have led the way in the head-to-head series. This time, the Hawkeyes offense — holy oxymoron — likely will have some really wet, windy weather to contend with, too. Boiler Up, 20-13.

Maryland v Illinois

Look for Illinois’ Josh McCray to make his presence felt.

Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Michigan State (+17) at No. 16 Illinois (2:30 p.m., BTN, 890-AM): The same ugly conditions are expected at Memorial Stadium, which is A-OK with the Illini. Star running back Chase Brown and bruising No. 2 back Josh McCray — finally ready to roll, not that the team has suffered without him — will happily go off, and the wicked Illini defense will happily tee off. Bear in mind that eight Spartans were suspended after last weekend’s tunnel fight at Michigan. Illini, 31-13.

No. 6 Alabama (-13½) at No. 10 LSU (6 p.m., ESPN): Reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young vs. LSU’s Jayden Daniels is one of the season’s better QB battles. In wins against Florida and Ole Miss the last two games, Daniels accounted for 11 touchdowns — six of them as a runner — whipping Tigers fans into a frenzy that only intensified throughout this week. The Tide better bring it. Bama, 34-24.

No. 4 Clemson (-3½) at Notre Dame (6:30 p.m., Ch. 5, Peacock, 780-AM): Are the Tigers a legit playoff team? Nah — they’ll get smoked in the semis if they make it that far — but they’ve played well enough to win ’em all so far, and that’s saying something. Marcus Freeman’s “D” is good enough to keep it close, but this is some tough sledding for the Irish offense. Clemson, 23-17.

My favorite favorite: Florida State (-7½) at Miami (6:30 p.m., Ch. 7): The rivalry is a cobwebbed shell of its old self, but the ’Noles are a better-than-it-looks 5-3. The ’Canes are a worse-than-it-looks 4-4.

My favorite underdog: No. 13 Kansas State (+2½) vs. No. 24 Texas (6 p.m., FS1): How many big tests does Hook ’Em have to fail before dopes like me stop believing? K-State, on the other hand, has been a revelation.

Last week: 6-2 straight up, 4-4 vs. the spread.

Season to date: 49-28 straight up, 39-38 vs. the spread.

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