Ryan Mayer

Through four weeks of the college football season, Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs have consistently moved up the rankings, from 15th in the country during the preseason to seventh now. They’ve done so on the back of a physical defense that’s allowing opponents just 269.5 yards and 11.5 points per game. The running game has been just as important, with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel leading an attack that churns out 223.3 yards per game and helps to protect freshman QB Jake Fromm.

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After dominating Mississippi State last Saturday 31-3, Georgia now makes the trip to Neyland Stadium looking for revenge against the Tennessee Volunteers, who beat them last year on a last-second Hail Mary. With the game set to air on CBS and online at CBSSports.com, we caught up with CBS Sports Network college football analyst Houston Nutt to break down this year’s Bulldogs vs. Vols match-up and preview some interesting CBS Sports Network games.

CBS Local Sports: Georgia has dominated their opponents so far this year. What has impressed you the most about the way Kirby Smart’s crew is playing?

Houston Nutt: The thing that has stood out to me is when you go on the road and play the defense that they did at Notre Dame. They really showed quickness, were really sudden (quick off the ball) in the defensive front and did a really good job getting the ball back to their offense. Then, you take a freshman like Jake Fromm, who comes in when Eason has the injury, and he doesn’t flinch. The stage hasn’t been too big. Of course when you have two good backs like Chubb and Michel, that always helps.

Overall, everything has really impressed me. Special teams, defense — defense, especially. They’ve looked really good, and it goes without saying that they’re doing this with a freshman quarterback.

CBS Local Sports: Kirby Smart is known as a defensive mind, and he has really quickly turned this Bulldogs unit into a physical, attacking group. Have you been impressed by how quickly he’s gotten them playing at this level?

Houston Nutt: I have. Of course, he was working with Saban, so you expect that to an extent, But he’s done an outstanding job. Georgia has such rich tradition. You know what kind of talent there is in that state, and Kirby has done a great job of recruiting. But he has really done an outstanding job with the defense so far.

CBS Local Sports: Last year’s meeting between Georgia and Tennessee ended with a Hail Mary by the Vols to win. Do you expect this year’s meeting to be another close, one-possession kind of game?

Houston Nutt: It could. You don’t even know from Saturday to Saturday. You know Tennessee is going to play extremely hard, it’s always a good rivalry game. You know Georgia, in the back of their mind, is thinking about how they feel like they let one get away last year. This game is going to be exciting, fun to watch, and it could be very, very close.

CBS Local Sports: Aside from the Georgia-Tennessee match-up on CBS, there’s a couple of Top 25 teams playing on CBS Sports Network this Saturday too. First, USF plays East Carolina. The Bulls have struggled with slow starts and penalties despite their 4-0 record this year. How do you fix that if you’re coach Charlie Strong?

Houston Nutt: Penalties are very fixable. You sit down your team and say, ‘I guess we didn’t go over the rules well enough.’ You can’t hit anybody in the back. You can’t jump offsides, you can’t clip, you can’t hit somebody out of bounds. And it’s a selfish act if you do that — to hit somebody out of bounds or to hit somebody in the back — you’re hurting your team. So, you put emphasis on it, and you coach it very hard and you hold your players accountable for that. Because that’s one thing that can be coached.

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CBS Local Sports: There’s a late-night match-up that’s pretty interesting with San Diego State going up against Northern Illinois. We’ll start first with the Aztecs, what has stood out to you about their performance so far this year?

Houston Nutt: I love San Diego State because of their toughness. Rocky Long does such an outstanding job of playing physical football. Offense, defense, they’re all physical. Jeff Horton, the offensive coordinator, I love the way that he mixes up formations. He’s a very tough game caller. What I mean by that is, he’s not afraid to pound you.

A guy like Rashaad Penny, the tailback, is so outstanding. Second in the country in rushing, and he can return kicks as well. He’s a true weapon. Jeff does such a good job with the offense, and then you have head coach Rocky Long overseeing things defensively. That’s a really good combination. These guys are really fun to watch.

CBS Local Sports: As strong as SDSU has been running the ball, NIU has been just as good at stopping it, ranking in the Top 20 in rush yards allowed per game. How do the Huskies try and contain Penny and the Aztecs on Saturday night?

Houston Nutt: They’ve done a very good job this year, but this will have to be their best game because they’re going against one of the best tailbacks in the country. It’s all hands on deck. Everybody has to be playing to their responsibility on defense. It’s very important that you don’t lose your gap because when Rashaad hits that gap and you get him to the second level, watch out, it’s going to take your breath away.

Northern Illinois has to continue to build on what they’ve been doing, it just has to be even better this week. That’s what’s going to make this game fun to watch because both teams are so good.

CBS Local Sports: On the flip side, for NIU, they’re facing an Aztecs defense that has stifled its opponents this year. How do you look to attack Rocky Long’s group?

Houston Nutt: That’s a good question. The biggest thing is, you can’t turn the ball over. You have to protect the ball, you can’t stop yourself. You can’t give good teams an edge with foolish penalties or turning the ball over. Winning the turnover margin is key. It’s things like that that will help you be able to get to the fourth quarter with a close game. And then you have a chance to win the game.

But, if you help a good team and turn the ball over, it hurts. It’s a lot like Vanderbilt last week. They were so excited, they won a good game against Kansas State, but the very first series, they turned the ball over. You can’t help the giants, you can’t help the good teams.

CBS Local Sports: It’s still early obviously, but South Florida and SDSU look like the two likely bets for that New Year’s Six, Group of 5 spot. Of the two teams, which would you expect to make an appearance in that game?

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Houston Nutt: Anything can happen, it seems like each and every week, we change our minds (laughing). I’m going to go with San Diego State. That offense, defense, special teams — all three phases of the game — I would lean towards SDSU having the advantage. They don’t seem like they make as many mistakes right now as South Florida, so I’m going to lean towards San Diego State being the one to make that appearance.