At halftime, it was a legitimate question.

Who’s the top-5 team with national title hopes?

After all, both Tennessee and Georgia had 5-star talent on the offensive line. Both had defensive-minded coaches with disciplined groups who made plays all over the place. Both had quarterbacks who made big-time throws that exceeded some rather pedestrian preseason expectations.

Perhaps you asked that aforementioned question at halftime. Maybe you were even bold enough to respond “Tennessee.” The Vols had their backs to the goal line and stood tall to preserve the lead. Tennessee had every reason to feel good going into the locker room with a lead, not to mention the longest active winning streak among Power 5 teams.

Georgia was undisciplined. The Dawgs snapped the ball into their own end zone and stupidly squirted water on the opposing quarterback to get an obvious 15-yard penalty.

And then the second half happened, and it was no longer a question.

Tennessee isn’t the top-5 team with national title hopes. That’s Georgia.

The Vols followed the same all-too frustrating second-half script that has been evident since 2017. One mental mistake after another, 1 coverage breakdown after another, 1 missed blocking assignment after another and 1 more deflating loss to a rival.

Including Saturday’s late dud, Tennessee has been outscored 82-12 in the second half against Georgia since 2017.


To be clear, that was an UGA bark, not Smokey. Only one of those pups deserved to puff their chest after Saturday.

Again. It was the type of second half that should’ve made Tennessee fans see the difference. That is, the difference between a program that’s learning how to become great and a program that’s already great.

Great programs don’t have quarterbacks who turn the ball over 3 times in the second half like Jarrett Guarantano did. Whatever concoction Guarantano downed before Saturday’s game clearly ran out at halftime. The team that didn’t have a turnover in its first 10 quarters of football in 2020 was seemingly a turnover waiting to happen in the second half against Georgia.

And to be fair, yeah, that’s the No. 1 defense in the country. Georgia might’ve had some undisciplined plays in the first half, but to sustain drives on the Dawgs for 60 minutes, you need your offensive line to hold up. That didn’t happen, either. A whopping minus-1 rushing yard for the game was telling.

That didn’t feel like a different second half than last year’s did it? That hit from Monty Rice might not have been quite as bone-crushing as the one Brian Maurer took last year, but didn’t it feel like Guarantano didn’t have a chance in the second half?

It’s too bad for Guarantano because, for a minute, it felt like he was having a moment. The connection that he and Josh Palmer had in the first half was darn impressive. In the “who’s going to replace Jauan Jennings” discussion, Palmer has certainly answered that.

The problem, though, is that Guarantano needed to pitch a perfect game to beat that team. In his 4th try, he couldn’t do that.

The other problem was as great as this Tennessee offensive line has been to start the season, it takes a truly elite group to not be overcome by that Georgia front 7. Between Rice, Azeez Ojulari, Nolan Smith and about a dozen other guys, it always feels like one of them is getting into the backfield and wreaking havoc. It truly is an embarrassment of riches.

I mean, Georgia had 36 players on that defense who played 100 snaps last year … on the No. 1 defense in the country. That’s absurd. Georgia’s got so many dudes on defense that some of them are even making offensive plays.

Check that. They’re even scoring touchdowns.

That’s where Tennessee is. Georgia could mess around like that and still win that game comfortably. It’s a 166-47 advantage for Georgia in those last 4 meetings. Tennessee’s nation-high losing streak against AP Top 10 teams is now at 34.

But does that mean the Vols’ winning streak was all fools gold? No, that’s not fair. The Vols found ways to win close games that they would’ve lost in the beginning of last year. They’re probably not in a place where they can lose a guy like Deandre Johnson in the first quarter (targeting) and beat an elite team on the road, either.

What Jeremy Pruitt is building is still something that Tennessee fans should be excited about. Don’t take for granted what it means to beat the teams you’re supposed to beat.

At the same time, how sustainable is that message if Tennessee’s 2020 rivalry games still feel like lopsided affairs by day’s end?

I don’t have an answer for that. That depends on how these games play out. Getting totally dominated by rivals in the second half certainly wouldn’t bode well for the Pruitt vision in Year 3. It would say to the masses: “Nope, we’re still on that level yet.”

That’s what the last 30 minutes of Saturday felt like. Tennessee isn’t a complete team. Georgia might not be a complete team just yet, but clearly, it’s much closer to making that claim than the Vols.

Some will tell themselves that the Vols are so close based on a halftime score against Georgia, or a momentum swinging goal-line play with Guarantano going rogue against Alabama. Some will just say it’s about getting a quarterback. Sure, maybe that’s it. But Tennessee still can’t stay on the field with Georgia for 60 minutes.

As the clock winded down on another Tennessee loss to Georgia on Saturday, Vols fans experienced something that they hadn’t felt in nearly a full calendar year — a loss. That was the Alabama loss. We wondered then if Tennessee would be any closer to being on that level a year later.

If you watched the last 30 minutes on Saturday, that answer was painfully obvious.

Not yet, Tennessee. Not yet.