1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

We can no longer avoid it. Tennessee, the surprise of the college football season, is quickly morphing into a dangerous version of the 2019 LSU national champions.

Same explosive offense, with a white-hot quarterback and 3 dangerous receivers.

Same athletic and emerging defense, growing more confident by the week.

Same supremely confident team hitting the road for a November game to remember against the defending national champions.

Three years ago, it was LSU’s trip to Alabama. This time, it’s Tennessee rolling into Athens to play Georgia.

“You want to be on this stage,” Vols coach Josh Heupel said. “You want to play in front of an audience that’s going to be captivated by these 2 football teams.”

Three years ago, LSU had QB Joe Burrow dropping dimes to WRs Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall. The receivers — and wildly underrated TE Thaddeus Moss — were uncoverable.

Tennessee has QB Hendon Hooker, whose TD/INT ratio since last year’s November loss to Alabama is 30/1, throwing to Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman and Bru McCoy — and wildly underrated No. 4 receiver Ramel Keyton.

The LSU run game with Clyde Edwards-Helaire was more than just a complementary, it was another significant problem for defenses. And Burrow ran enough to pick up critical first downs.

Tennessee has Jaylen Wright and Jabari Small, who have rushed for 953 yards and 13 TD, and have been a devastating downhill run combo.

The only difference between the teams: LSU ran a tempo, run-pass option spread, and the quarterback’s ability to read the safety (and where the defense was committing or breaking) was critical to its success.

Tennessee runs a tempo spread — at a much faster rate — but has wide receivers at the numbers to spread a defense and force it to commit numbers in the box or over the top in coverage. The offense only thrives when the quarterback can make accurate, quick and high-velocity throws from the hash to either number — and receivers win individual battles.

In some cases, it’s a long throw. Other times, it’s short. Either way, accuracy is everything — and Hooker is completing 71.2 percent of his passes.

Meanwhile, the Vols’ receivers are constantly winning off the line of scrimmage, by play design or by athleticism. Hyatt is the deep threat who can score from anywhere on the field (Chase), Tillman does the underneath work and can get deep (Jefferson), and McCoy makes the difficult catches on 3rd down (Marshall).

It’s eerie how closely related these seasons have become, right down to the choice at head coach and how the most important position on the field changed everything (more on that later).

When Heupel was hired at Tennessee, there were skeptics that he was simply the fallback candidate because new Vols AD Danny White couldn’t get who he wanted, and settled for what he knew: Heupel, his coach at UCF.

When Ed Orgeron was hired at LSU in 2017, it was only after the Tigers couldn’t get Jimbo Fisher or Tom Herman, and settled on the interim coach who earned it.

It took Orgeron 3 years to build a national title contender. It has taken Heupel 2.

“Obviously we’ve taken some huge strides,” Heupel said. “Next week is another big test, but one we’re looking forward to.”

2. The QB choice

Everything changed at LSU in the spring of 2018 when Orgeron convinced Joe Burrow to leave his comfort zone of Ohio and play in the SEC.

Burrow had left Ohio State and was planning on signing with Cincinnati before Orgeron arrived and sold LSU. You want to play in the NFL? Come play against the best, he told Burrow.

Three years later, Hooker left Virginia Tech after graduating (like Burrow) and never feeling like he got a fair shot (like Burrow), and transferred to the SEC after former Tennessee offensive coordinator Jim Chaney convinced Hooker he could get to the NFL from Knoxville.

But 2 weeks after he signed with the Vols, coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired, Chaney wasn’t retained and Heupel had to recruit Hooker all over again.

“I told him, if you come in and work, we can do great things here,” Heupel said.

Here’s where the similar roads fork a bit. Burrow started from Day 1 in 2018; Hooker didn’t start until Week 3 in 2021.

Burrow struggled in a conservative offense for the first 2 months of the season, and blossomed over the last month when Orgeron decided to open up the offense and rely on Burrow’s arm.

Hooker played at a high level from his first game, and by the end of his first season, had the Vols’ offense primed for big things in 2022.

Think about this: 21 games into his LSU career, Burrow had 5,699 passing yards and a TD/INT ratio of 46/9, and 21 games into his Tennessee career, Hooker is at 5,283 yards and 52/4.

Burrow got hot the remainder of the 2019 season, throwing for 30 TDs (only 2 INTs) over the final 7 games, including 3 TDs against Alabama in the season-defining game.

Hooker’s season-defining game is Saturday against Georgia, which has won 26 of its past 27 games and hasn’t lost in Athens since a double-overtime loss to South Carolina in 2019.

Beat Georgia this weekend, and Tennessee’s road to an unbeaten regular season and a likely rematch with Alabama in the SEC Championship Game comes down to beating Missouri in Knoxville, and South Carolina and Vanderbilt on the road.

If you’re still not convinced this is more than just numbers and Tennessee will get exposed at Georgia, consider this: In 7 career games away from Knoxville, Hooker has thrown 21 TDs and only 1 INT.

Once Tennessee wins at Georgia — like LSU did at Alabama — the comparisons with 2019 LSU will come full force.

3. Double trouble, The Epilogue

Forget about Georgia last year. It was an anomaly — and Tennessee will prove it this week in Athens.

The college game is all about offense, about getting the right quarterback and surrounding him with athletic and fast talent — and overwhelming defenses by scoring points in bunches.

Georgia last year was different because the defense was so good, and the Alabama offense was so limited without its 2 best receivers (injured John Metchie III and Jameson Williams didn’t play 3 quarters of the national championship game), Georgia simply willed itself to the title with a nasty defense and an offense that made plays when it had to.

But look at the previous 5 national title winners, and see the distinct turn toward the vertical passing game and stressing defenses with multiple options at wide receiver and a complementary run game.

— 2020: Mac Jones set school passing records and Alabama was overwhelming in the pass game with WRs DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle and Metchie (and RB Najee Harris).

— 2019: We know what the LSU offense did, but the defense didn’t hit its stride until after the Alabama game. Sound familiar, Vols?

— 2018: Clemson won with QB Trevor Lawrence and WRs Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow and Amari Rogers (and RB Travis Etienne).

— 2017: Alabama won with QBs Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, and WRs Clavin Ridley, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Smith (and RB Damien Harris).

— 2016: Clemson won with QB Deshaun Watson and WRs Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Renfrow (and RB Wayne Gallman).

Those 5 seasons produced 12 first-round NFL Draft picks among those elite passing games and complementary run games. Georgia isn’t as good on defense as it was in 2021, and when it played a complete Alabama team — full of its offensive weapons — lost in the SEC Championship Game.

Offense is everything now. It’s why Ohio State has dominated the Big Ten, and Oklahoma (with Lincoln Riley) dominated the Big 12 and why Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma have the most Playoff appearances.

It’s not a secret sauce, it’s right there in front of everyone to see. Get the right quarterback, surround him with talent, and a run at the Playoff isn’t as far away as you think.

Tennessee, which hadn’t been a prominent player in the national title race in nearly 2 decades, will prove that case again Saturday at Georgia — and look more and more like LSU 2019 in the process.

4. Is LSU the real deal?

It’s time we embrace the development of LSU QB Jayden Daniels in the month of October, and the development of the Tigers at the same time.

Three October wins — including a 45-20 rout of No. 7 Ole Miss — and second half of the season momentum leads to Saturday night’s prove-it game in Baton Rouge against Alabama.

It’s the first time since 2019 that the annual barometer of just how good LSU is includes a path to the SEC Championship Game. Win out, and 2-loss LSU wins the West Division and needs only a win in the SEC Championship Game to advance to the Playoff.

But we’re not at this point unless LSU coach Brian Kelly makes a critical move 4 weeks ago, when the offense wasn’t doing much of anything and needed a spark.

“What (Kelly) did for (Daniels) and that team was really smart,” an NFL scout told me. “Didn’t panic early when the offense struggled, and waited to push the right button at the right time to get (Daniels) motivated. Never told him to stop running, and never emphasized what he wasn’t doing. Just told him it’s time to start taking chances and making throws to win games.

“Imagine if you’re a quarterback and you’re struggling a bit, and your coach tells you it’s time to start taking chances. A brilliant motivational move.”

In 4 games in October, Daniels completed 67 percent of his passes for 977 yards and 6 TDs, and he rushed for 262 yards and 7 TDs. He had 1 turnover.

That’s championship-level football, even though 1 of those games was a bad loss to Tennessee. The Tigers began that game by fumbling the opening kickoff and kept hurting themselves throughout the game with self-inflicted mistakes.

What happens now when Alabama arrives in Baton Rouge with a defense that has had problems in the secondary all season? Daniels is a more dynamic runner than Hooker, and will cause more problems for the Alabama defense — which has had problems over the years against dual-threat quarterbacks because of the man-under defense it plays.

5. The Weekly Five

Five picks against the spread brought to you by our good friends at FanDuel:

  • Tennessee (+8.5) at Georgia
  • Alabama at LSU (+13.5)
  • Florida at Texas A&M (-3.5)
  • Auburn at Mississippi State (-11.5)
  • Kentucky (-2.5) at Missouri

Last week: 2-3.

Season: 26-19.

6. Your tape is your résumé

An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Kentucky QB Will Levis (second time grading in 2022).

“Love his release. Quick, compact and a strong arm. He can throw with velocity and touch. He can layer the ball nicely. He has great size, and he’s a tough, tough guy. The problem this season is the offensive line isn’t that good, and he hasn’t had the ability to take advantage of 3 really good receivers.

“I also don’t think (Kentucky) is committed completely to throwing the ball. (UK coach) Mark (Stoops) plays conservatively because they play so well defensively. If you saw (Levis) in a spread system with the receivers he has, the numbers would be ridiculous. This is also important: He hasn’t complained this season, hasn’t shown poor body language, just keeps grinding. He’s a top-10 pick, no question.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: The most important player this week, this moment, in an oddly important week for 13 of the 14 teams:

1. Tennessee: DE Byron Young. Tennessee’s best off the edge, he can pressure Georgia QB Stetson Bennett into quick, poor throws and decisions.

2. Georgia: RB Kenny McIntosh. Maybe the fumble vs. Florida is the turning point for the run game — and McIntosh will help keep the Tennessee offense on the sidelines.

3. Alabama: DE Will Anderson. Was nearly non-existent against Tennessee and Hooker. Must show up to slow down Daniels.

4. LSU: WR Kayshon Boutte. The benefactor of Daniels’ breakout month, Boutte must be a dynamic presence like he was against Florida.

5. Ole Miss: OC Charlie Weis Jr. A film room junkie, he’ll have 2 weeks to pour over tape on the Tennessee and LSU games to find flaws in Alabama D for a huge game Nov. 12.

6. Mississippi State: LT Kwatrivous Johnson. MSU’s best pass protector, if Johnson can handle Auburn edge rushers Derick Hall and Colby Wooden, MSU QB Will Rogers will have a huge game and a critical 3-game home stretch begins with a win.

7. Arkansas: TB Raheim Sanders. Liberty has the No. 35 rush defense in the nation, and the Hogs can’t slip here with 9 wins legitimately within reach.

8. Kentucky: RB Chris Rodriguez. He’s running harder (and better) than anyone outside Quinshon Judkins in the SEC. Run him into the teeth of a vastly underrated Mizzou D.

9. South Carolina: QB Spencer Rattler. Hasn’t played well all season, and needs a strong — turnover-free — effort in a suddenly dangerous, sleepy night game for an uneven South Carolina offense.

10. Florida: TB Trevor Etienne. He’s dynamic, and he’s the fastest running back on the roster. Get him the ball against the 121st-ranked rush defense in the nation (205.8 ypg.).

11. Texas A&M: RB Devon Achane. Florida can’t stop the run. Period. Line up with a vastly superior offensive line, and give Achane — the fastest player on the field — the ball 25 times to snap a 4-game losing streak.

12. Missouri: DE Isaiah McGuire. Tigers’ most disruptive edge rusher must affect Kentucky QB Will Levis and produce poor throws and turnovers.

13. Auburn: RB Tank Bigsby. Mississippi State has struggled at times in run defense, and Bigsby needs the ball. A lot. He hasn’t had more than 20 carries in a game all season — and when he got 20, he had 179 yards and 2 TDs against Ole Miss.

14. Vanderbilt: RB Ray Davis. Vandy isn’t getting to 6 wins, but could get to 5 — a huge improvement — with home wins over South Carolina and Florida. Run. The. Ball. Gamecocks are 95th in the nation against the run.

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: What’s the story with Eli Ricks? He looked great against Mississippi State, but wasn’t on the field against Tennessee. What gives? — Tyler Freeman, Nashville.


Best I can get — from talking to NFL scouts who have been to Alabama practices — is Ricks was dinged up early in fall camp and then couldn’t get on the field because he wasn’t practicing initially, and then wasn’t competing well enough in practice.

Alabama coach Nick Saban has hinted as much, saying Alabama plays the guys who play best in practice. I get that, and agree with it. But if you’re struggling as badly as Alabama has in the secondary, and you have a former freshman All-American corner sitting on your bench, he has to get significant playing time sooner than the 8th game of the season.

Again, we don’t know if there are other factors that kept Ricks off the field. But it was clear who the team’s best cover corner was against Mississippi State — and it wasn’t Kool-Aid McKinstry. Ricks played well, and according to Pro Football Focus, was the highest-rated cornerback for Alabama and the SEC that week.

He was targeted 10 times against Mississippi State, allowed 1 reception for 19 yards, and forced 5 incompletions. He has to be on the field this week against LSU, his former team. He’ll be motivated, and he’ll be confident from his play at Mississippi State.

9. Numbers

114.9. If Quinshon Judkins had been the Ole Miss feature tailback since Week 1, there’s no telling how big his freshman season could’ve been. Maybe even as big as Herschel Walker’s legendary 1980 season of 1,616 yards and 15 TDs.

Judkins is currently averaging 114.9 yards per game, and if he averages 146 yards a game over the next 3 games (or less if Ole Miss wins the West Division and gets at least 1 more game), he’ll surpass Walker — whose freshman season is generally considered the greatest for any true freshman at any position in league history.

He’s 583 yards from breaking Walker’s freshman rushing mark, and 3 touchdowns from surpassing Walker’s 15 TDs.

The next 3 rush defenses Judkins will face: Alabama (No .12 in the nation), Arkansas (71st) and Mississippi State (59th).

10. Quote to note

Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz: “In winning football versus losing football, losing football has self-inflicted wounds. Before you go into a championship, you first got to keep from beating yourself.”