Cade Mays grew up wanting to be a Tennessee Volunteer.

His father, Kevin Mays, was an All-SEC guard at Tennessee whose top job was to protect Peyton Manning in the 1990s. His uncle, Michael Frogg, was a Vols lineman in the 2000s. Cade grew up in Roane County, about a 45-minute drive from the UT campus. He was a 5-star offensive lineman who played at Knoxville Catholic High School and committed to the Vols in the summer of 2015 for the Class of 2018.

But Tennessee football was a dumpster fire leading into the Early Signing Period in December 2017. The Vols’ failure to live up to expectations in 2015 and 2016, followed by a disastrous 2017 campaign, gave Cade Mays reason for pause. On Nov. 7, 2017, he reopened his commitment. It was a wise move. Five days later, Butch Jones was fired as Tennessee’s head coach. Mays could have gone anywhere, but chose one of Tennessee’s rivals, the Georgia Bulldogs.

It’s hard to question that choice. Georgia was coming off an SEC title and an overtime loss in the National Championship Game to Alabama (2nd-and-26 will forever haunt Dawgs fans). They were building a monster Class of 2018, which finished No. 1 in the recruiting rankings. Mays was a key contributor for the past 2 seasons, starting 18 games and playing all 5 positions on the Bulldogs’ offensive line. Georgia won the East both years — and the year before. Still, Georgia couldn’t climb the last hurdle. And now there are a few cracks showing up in the foundation. Those cracks are to Tennessee’s benefit.

One negative of having great players is they often leave after 3 seasons. Georgia has 3 junior offensive linemen who are entering the NFL Draft. Quarterback Jake Fromm is also going pro early, as is running back D’Andre Swift. Even with all that talent, Georgia’s offense underachieved in 2019. It finished 61st in the nation. And with at least 5 NFL-caliber players bolting, it doesn’t look encouraging on that side of the football in 2020, either.

Whether that played a factor in Mays’s decision to transfer to Tennessee, or it was simply a desire to come home and play with his brother Cooper (an early enrollee in the Class of 2020), or it was more related to the bizarre lawsuit his father Kevin has filed against the University of Georgia, we don’t really know. Cade has yet to meet with the media. But he has enrolled at UT and is now a Vol.

“As a guy with multiple years of starting experience on the offensive line in the SEC, Cade is a tremendous addition to our program,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt in a statement. “He’s tough and he’s powerful, and he is a versatile player, who can line up anywhere on the offensive line. He will have an impact on the field, and he will also have a positive impact on our team and in the offensive line room with his leadership ability.”

The Vols are hoping that the NCAA and SEC allow Cade Mays to play at Tennessee next season. If that happens, the Vols’ offensive line suddenly looks like one of the best in the conference. If everyone is healthy and eligible, you are looking at Mays and Trey Smith (who decided to stay in school for his senior year) at the guard positions. At tackles you’d have rising sophomores Wayne Morris and Darnell Wright. At center there would be Brandon Kennedy, who was recently granted a 6th year of eligibility. That’s a solid group, and one that would help Tennessee in its efforts to complete with Georgia for a division title.

The top 3 teams in the division in 2019 were Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. Florida is improving under Dan Mullen. Tennessee has certainly taken a few steps forward under Pruitt. Has Georgia plateaued under Kirby Smart? The Dawgs are 44-12 in his 4 years. Under Mark Richt, who was dismissed for his inability to win a national title, the Bulldogs were slightly better in his first 4 years at 42-10.

Before you start putting dirt on Georgia’s grave, remember that the Bulldogs have the No. 3-ranked recruiting class, 13 spots above Tennessee. Even though Georgia is consistently finding a way to lose the key game they have to win each year, most fan bases would trade places with them in a heartbeat. The Bulldogs have gone 23-5 the past 2 years, and won the East for 3 consecutive seasons.

But the transfer of Cade Mays could be a sign that Tennessee isn’t as far away from competing with Georgia as you might think.

The past 3 years the Vols have lost all 3 meetings with Georgia by a combined score of 121-26.

If the Vols are indeed getting closer to the Bulldogs, their Nov. 14 game in Athens will be a litmus test … and might decide which team represents the East in Atlanta.