The definition of catching lightning in a bottle is to do something considered virtually impossible. That would appear to be Tennessee’s challenge this week against Georgia, particularly considering both teams performances in their last games.
But what many Tennessee fans may have forgotten is Tennessee has already done exactly that against Georgia and, no, I’m not talking about the Hail Mary play in the 2016 game. I’m talking about the Vols’ upset win in Athens in 2004 against a third-ranked Bulldog team under very similar circumstances to this year’s matchup.
On Saturday, Oct. 2 in 2004, third-ranked Georgia defeated the defending national champion LSU Tigers 45-16 in the Bulldogs’ most complete game of the season in Athens behind quarterback David Green, defensive end David Polak and a team loaded with future NFL players. Meanwhile in Knoxville, the eighth-ranked Vols got dismantled at home by ninth-ranked Auburn 34-10, a blowout upset that nobody saw coming. At that point in the season, nobody knew the Tigers were as good as they would turn out to be, eventually winning the national championship.
I was in Athens for the Georgia demolition of LSU and remember thinking there is no way the Bulldogs are going to take the Vols seriously the following week. I suspected Georgia would be flat and Tennessee would be determined to show they were not the same team that got ripped up at home by Auburn the previous week.
On Saturday Oct. 9, 2004, the 12th-ranked Vols traveled to Athens for a matchup that nobody expected Tennessee to win. The Vols get off to a fast start behind Eric Ainge, Georgia was flat and never caught up as the Vols pulled a huge 19-14 road upset. I was also at that game and to say the Georgia team and fans were stunned is an understatement.
Fast forward 19 years and No. 1 Georgia is coming off their best and most complete game of the season by popping ninth-ranked Ole Miss 52-17 at home while Tennessee is coming off the worst game of Josh Heupel’s time as the Vol coach 36-7 at Missouri, a team the Bulldogs had beaten at home 30-21 the previous week. All the ingredients are there for another epic Tennessee upset of Georgia except this time, they get that matchup at Neyland where they have played much better than on the road. Smart has done a good job in managing his team week to week and not letting them overlook anyone on the schedule. However, they now have the SEC East locked up while, back in 2004, the Tennessee-Georgia matchup was played earlier in the season with the divisional titles up for grabs. Could Georgia relax knowing they are already set for a matchup with Bama in the SEC Championship Game? And the SECC game will determine who represents the SEC in the CFP, not this week’s Tennessee-Georgia matchup.
If this week’s game was in Athens, I’d say no way the Vols get close to an upset. They are a certifiably poor team outside of Neyland Stadium. But a visiting team winning in Neyland is another story. Vols will have a shot at a huge upset Saturday but clearly they’ll have to close ranks and step it up on both sides of the ball. It could be another great lightning in a bottle story for Tennessee Football.