Just in time for its biggest test of the season against No. 2 Tennessee’s top-ranked offense, top-ranked Georgia’s defense has lost outside linebacker Nolan Smith to a season-ending injury.
Smith, who leads Georgia with three sacks and is fifth with 18 tackles, suffered a torn right pectoral muscle in last week’s 42-20 win over Florida. Georgia announced Tuesday that Smith, a senior, will have surgery on Thursday and is expected to make a full recovery.
Smith was one of only three returning starters from the 2021 defense that led Georgia to its first national championship since 1980. Despite having eight players from the defense selected in this year’s draft, including five in the first round, Georgia (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) is second in the nation with its average of 10.50 points allowed.
Saturday’s matchup provides the opportunity for Georgia to prove it again has a championship-caliber defense. Tennessee (8-0, 4-0), tied with Ohio State for No. 2 in the AP poll, leads the nation with its average of 49.4 points per game.
”It is a great challenge for us,” nose tackle Zion Logue said Monday. ”The tempo, we are not going to let that affect us. We are going to play our game and just stick to the things we have been taught all season and just play football.”
The loss of Smith adds difficulty to the already daunting challenge of containing the Vols’ fast-paced attack led by quarterback Hendon Hooker. Tennessee leads the nation in total offense and ranks second in passing.
Hooker passed for three touchdowns and ran for a score in Tennessee’s 44-6 win over then-No. 19 Kentucky last week.
The win over Kentucky was the Vols’ best defensive game of the season, but the spotlight will rest on the matchup between Tennessee’s offense and Georgia’s defense.
The Bulldogs’ secondary will be challenged to contain Tennessee’s wide receivers, including Jalin Hyatt, who has set a school record with 14 TD catches, including two against Kentucky. The secondary is led by cornerback Kelee Ringo and safety Christopher Smith.
”One thing is for sure, they’re going to get to cover,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of his defensive backs. ”They’re going to find out. Because there’s no hiding anybody when you play these guys.”
Cedric Tillman, the Vols’ top wide receiver last season, returned last week in a limited role after missing much of the season with a high ankle sprain. Tillman could play a bigger role against Georgia.
When asked what makes the Tennessee receivers so difficult to cover, Smart said: ”Speed, space, scheme, talented arm.”
”You know, you can have the best receivers in the world, and they get open all the time, if you don’t have somebody that can get it to them — they have somebody that can protect them and get it to him,” Smart said. ”They do a good job of that. Again, that’s the challenge for us this week.”
The winner of Saturday’s game will take command of the SEC Eastern Division race for a spot in the SEC championship game.
Hooker said the showdown represents ”the top brand of football.”
”As you can see, they have some great coaches behind them, and they play extremely hard,” Hooker said Monday when asked about Georgia’s defense. ”That’s something that you can’t teach. The effort and attitude and toughness that they bring to the game is immaculate and that’s what SEC football is about.”
Senior Robert Beal and sophomore Chaz Chambliss, who already have played significant roles, played more snaps after Smith’s injury last week. Chambliss has been limited by a hamstring injury.
AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed to this report.
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