Kentucky looking to upset Georgia in upside-down version of rivalry game
LEXINGTON, Ky. — It seems like the Kentucky vs. Georgia game finds us here every year. By early November, the SEC contenders have been separated from the SEC pretenders. And this year, like so many before, in the UK-UGA game, one team is striving for the top of the division and a chance to represent the league in Atlanta, and the other is hoping to string together six victories to get bowl eligible.
Except, this year, Kentucky is the first team, and Georgia is the second.
It’s only one of many ways that the usual script for this rivalry is very typical — except for being turned upside down.
Things are pretty standard at the quarterback spot. One of those guys has hit on 57 percent of his passes, averages 7.7 yards per attempt, and has a quarterback rating of 133. The other has completed 53 percent of his throws for just 6.3 yards per attempt, and is almost 20 points behind the other in QB rating. But UK passer Stephen Johnson, a two-star backup UK nabbed from a JUCO after he transferred out of Grambling, is the first guy. And UGA five-star stud Jacob Eason is the second.
Even in the backfield, it looks like a typical UK-UGA game. One team has two stud running backs who will end up in the NFL, the No. 3 and No. 9 rushers in the conference, with a combined total of 1,482 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The other has two talented backs, who have had some injury issues and struggle at times with effectiveness. Those two have combined for 966 yards and six touchdowns. But surprising Kentucky backs Boom Williams and Benny Snell are the first group, and Georgia all-SEC disappointments Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are the second.
And of course, coaching is always an issue. The Bulldogs are the team of steady, competent leadership. Even when times are tough, they can count on a seasoned coach who will pull out the needed stops to assure a win. Except that this year, first-year head coach Kirby Smart has often looked like he skipped a few sessions of Head Coaching 101. And Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has abandoned the unfulfilled hope of Air Raid football, took an active role in his defense, and suddenly has his Wildcats winning games that they used to lose.
Georgia is one game that the Wildcats have often lost. UK’s last win over the Bulldogs came in 2009, when Georgia QB Joe Cox (no, I am not him) threw two interceptions, one of which led to a Kentucky touchdown. The last win in Lexington came in 2006, in a game where the goal posts were torn down and Coach Rich Brooks cemented his reputation as a master rebuilder who had transformed UK football from a probation-ridden mess to a team that could line up toe-to-toe with anybody in the SEC.
On one level, the fact that Kentucky has just been a competitor in the East in 2016, and is almost guaranteed a bowl appearance, means that the Wildcats are playing with house money. UGA still has a generally more talented group of players than the Wildcats, and accordingly are a 2-point road favorite.
But for this Kentucky team, after decades of dashed hopes and squandered opportunities, the chance is there to make another statement in the SEC. That statement, should Arkansas pull a mild upset against Florida, would mean being the top SEC East squad in the standings on Sunday morning.
Over the course of Kentucky’s rapid rise up the SEC East standings, the Wildcats have sometimes been good, sometimes been lucky, but mostly, just been opportunistic.
And when could chances be better to upset Georgia than the year where the UK-UGA game — and maybe the SEC East standings — has been turned upside-down?
A Kentucky win on Saturday night over Georgia would be anything but typical — which is probably the foremost reason for thinking it might happen.