After years of sitting on the sidelines of big-time SEC football like a wall flower at his high school prom, Kentucky find itself ready to bust a move Saturday afternoon against Georgia with the SEC title on the line. The question is, how will Kentucky compete with a Georgia team that has clearly superior talent?
The question isn’t a slight to UK. Kirby Smart’s past two classes are better than any except perhaps Alabama’s. Kentucky hasn’t gotten to 5-1 in SEC play without a large number of capable athletes. But Georgia has a much larger number.
Here’s how they match up.
Kentucky’s hopes of an upset start and end with its outstanding defense. UK leads the SEC (and ties for the national lead) in scoring defense, allowing just 13 points per game, and is second in the league allowing just 295 yards per game.
Kentucky hasn’t faced Alabama or its 54.1 point per game scoring attack. Georgia does rank second in the league with 38.6 points per game — although admittedly, that’s not far ahead of No. 4 Missouri (35.5 PPG) or No. 5 Florida (32.2 PPG).Kentucky just held Missouri three full touchdowns under its season average and halved Florida’s scoring average in their Week 2 matchup in Gainesville.
Kentucky’s 22 sacks rank fourth in the SEC, within striking distance of Alabama’s league-leading 26 sacks. Meanwhile, Georgia ranks dead last in the conference, dropped opposing passers only 10 times all season.
Kentucky’s Josh Allen is personally responsible for 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. Kentucky will need a big game from Allen, and possibly also pass rusher Jamar Watson, who lines up opposite Allen and has taken advantage of double-teams to UK’s star to quietly post four sacks himself.
Putting Georgia in 3rd-and-long situations would be critical because the Bulldogs have converted 47.4% of their third down attempts, second-best in the SEC. Throughout their 36-17 win over Florida, UGA was able to turn 3rd-and-manageable situations into clock-killing first downs. All 3 of Jake Fromm’s TD passes against Florida came on third down. Kentucky is fourth in the SEC in time of possession and their defense is best when it can get off the field. Incidentally, when Fromm passes on 3rd-and-10 or more, he has thrown 3 interceptions in his 14 pass attempts.
Run to win?
Offensively, Kentucky will try to strike behind RB Benny Snell, whose 935 rushing yards lead the SEC and pace Kentucky’s 214 yards per game rushing (No. 4 in the SEC). Georgia has been only ho-hum against the run defensively, allowing 140.5 yards per game on the ground (No. 8 in the SEC) and allowing 4.2 yards per carry. Snell comes off a mediocre game last week at Missouri, but any hint of failure is eternal motivational fire to him.
Pass to not lose?
Kentucky’s marginal passing game is a cause for concern, but Wildcats backers should take heart in knowing that Georgia has only 5 interceptions despite playing from ahead and facing a large number of pass attempts throughout the season. Meanwhile, Georgia is incredibly stingy in turnovers itself, throwing just 4 interceptions and losing 3 fumbles in eight games. It is worth noting that more than half of the season’s turnovers came in UGA’s sole loss at LSU.
The Final Plan?
In essence then, Kentucky’s game plan against Georgia should look like its game plan most weeks. UK hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in any game this season. Georgia has scored 36 or more in every game except its loss to LSU. Kentucky has to hold UGA a decent bit below 36 points to have a good shot to win.
What would that look like? Some big plays from the pass rush, maybe an opportune turnover or two (or four like LSU did). Mostly, it looks like Kentucky doing the things it has done defensively all season. Can they stop the run as well as they did against Mississippi State, while also holding down the pass game as well as they did at Missouri?
Offensively, Kentucky needs a good but not necessarily great day from Snell. The passing game needs to find a few holes in the UGA secondary without coughing up any ill-timed turnovers. Lynn Bowden might not catch 13 passes like he did at Mizzou, but UK needs to find a way of again making his touches count. Keeping the ball for 35 minutes or so wouldn’t hurt.
Mark Stoops said at this weekly press conference that Kentucky needs to play its best game of the season to win. While that’s probably true, the good news is that many of the critical spots are ones in which the Wildcats have already asserted themselves.