ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia finally figured out how to get things started.
Too bad the 10th-ranked Bulldogs forgot how to finish.
One of the nation's most scrutinized undefeated teams prior to Saturday, the Bulldogs won't have to worry about that anymore. Georgia squandered a 17-point lead in a 51-33 loss to No. 13 Tennessee at Sanford Stadium.
"It was a tale of two halves," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.
The story of Georgia's last two games had followed the opposite script.
Georgia had relied on second-half comebacks the last two weeks to avoid upsets against Colorado and Ole Miss. In those games, the Bulldogs failed to score in the first half.
This time, Georgia could do no wrong in the early going. The Bulldogs raced to a 24-7 advantage and scored every time they had the ball in the first two periods.
"It was great," Georgia fullback Brannan Southerland said. "We were moving the ball, catching the ball, running the ball. It felt great to come out and do it."
Southerland had one touchdown run and one touchdown catch during that first-half frenzy. Mikey Henderson scored on an 86-yard punt return. The Bulldogs' much-maligned receiving corps was catching everything in sight.
But the biggest hero at the time was Joe Tereshinski, who returned from a three-game absence to play the best two quarters of his life. The fifth-year senior quarterback directed three scoring drives and provided the leadership that had been missing from the Bulldogs' huddle.
This third-generation Bulldog – his father and grandfather both played on SEC championship teams – appeared to be writing one of the season's best feel-good tales. This underappreciated senior was returning from an ankle injury to give his team the spark it desperately needed.
Then the clock struck midnight on this Cinderella story a few hours early.
On Georgia's second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Tennessee linebacker Ryan Karl leaped and deflected a Tereshinski pass. The ball landed in the arms of cornerback Antwan Stewart at Georgia's 19-yard line.
That play set the tone for the rest of the night.
Tereshinski threw a second interception at his 36-yard line later in the third quarter. That pick set up the touchdown that put Tennessee ahead for good. Tereshinski would fumble later in the game and eventually was replaced by true freshman Matthew Stafford.
After going 7-of-9 for 127 yards and a touchdown in the first half, Tereshinski was 5-of-11 for 37 yards with two interceptions and a fumble the rest of the night.
By the time the Bulldogs went three-and-out on their first drive of the fourth quarter, the cheers that had rained down on Tereshinski earlier in the night had turned to jeers.
"We came out firing and making some plays," Tereshinski said. "But when the second half rolled around, the same team didn't come out and play. We've got to find that team that came out in the first half."
Of course, Georgia's offense had survived a poor half of football each of the last two weeks. A powerful defense that had allowed fewer points per game than any team in the country was good enough to make up for the offense's shortcomings.
Not this time.
Tennessee scored on six consecutive possessions – not including a blocked punt that produced another touchdown - and ended up tallying the most points Georgia had allowed since 1999. The Volunteers were one point away from the scoring record for a Sanford Stadium visitor, set by Florida in a 52-17 victory over the Bulldogs in 1995.
"When you consider yourself one of the elite defenses in the nation, you never expect something like this to happen," Georgia defensive end Quentin Moses said.
If nothing else, this game proved that Georgia isn't one of the elite teams in the nation. Not this year.
Georgia tried to put the best possible spin on the loss by noting that the SEC championship remains within reach. The Bulldogs can get right back into contention for the Eastern Division crown by upsetting Florida in two weeks.
"The SEC race has really just begun," Richt said. "There's no question in my mind we're still in the hunt."
But it's hard to imagine this team beating the undefeated the Gators. Tennessee basically exposed the truth about these Bulldogs.
They certainly aren't anywhere near as bad as those mediocre Georgia teams of the Ray Goff era. They may even be a tad better than some of those eight- and nine-win teams from Jim Donnan's tenure.
But the reigning SEC champions are probably a year away from seriously contending for another league title.