Position edge: Georgia vs. Kentucky
In a rare twist, Kentucky enters its Saturday night matchup against Georgia with the greater confidence. The Wildcats have won three consecutive SEC games and are in second place in the East division, while Georgia has now lost two ugly games to Vanderbilt and Florida.
Kirby Smart’s first season in Athens has not gone the way many fans had hoped, but he has a chance to build some momentum with a win in Lexington. To do that, the Bulldogs will need to find a way to slow down Kentucky’s dynamic rushing attack, which has proven to be no easy task.
Let’s see how these two teams stack up on paper.
When Georgia has the ball
QB Jacob Eason vs Kentucky’s pass defense: Georgia hasn’t done a very good job of helping its freshman quarterback, but Jacob Eason has played relatively well despite the problems around him. The Bulldogs’ offensive line did very little to protect Eason against Florida, as he was pressured on nearly half of his dropbacks, but he still managed to throw for 143 yards and a touchdown.
Eason should have an easier time against Kentucky, which is allowing nearly 225 yards through the air this season, but it won’t just fall on him. The line needs to prove it can give Eason a clean pocket against the Wildcats, who are averaging 1.88 sacks per game. Georgia’s wide receivers will also need to do a better job of creating separation and catching the football.
Eason has an opportunity to get the passing game untracked against the Wildcats, but everybody on the field must do their job. That’s something we have rarely seen out of this offense.
RB Nick Chubb & Co. vs Kentucky’s run defense: Similar to Eason, Georgia’s running backs depend greatly on the line, which has struggled to run block in recent weeks. Smart insists that Chubb is healthy, but the Bulldogs’ rushing attack is nowhere near as effective as it has been in years past.
Georgia needs more out of its ground game if it wants to secure a bowl bid, and that turnaround could happen Saturday. Kentucky is No. 89 nationally against the run, allowing nearly 200 yards per game. The Wildcats have given up more than 220 yards on the ground four times this season, and South Carolina was the only team not to cross the 100-yard rushing threshold.
The Bulldogs’ running backs haven’t suddenly become shells of their former selves. Georgia’s offensive play calling has been a little suspect at times, and the line has struggled to create movement up front. Still, Chubb and Sony Michel can get going at any time, and this might be one of those weeks.
UGA WRs vs Kentucky’s secondary: Kentucky’s secondary is better than their statistics would indicate. Derrick Baity and Chris Westry are a talented pair of sophomore cornerbacks who have tremendous size and range. Blake McClain and Mike Edwards man the safety positions and can fly to the football for a big hit. The Wildcats’ defensive backs have seven interceptions this season, which is tied for eighth in the SEC.
Georgia has been missing a true threat at wide receiver. Isaiah McKenzie has cooled off considerably since his blistering start and nobody has stepped up to make those plays. It remains to be seen how effective Riley Ridley will be after spraining his ankle against Florida.
When Kentucky has the ball
QB Stephen Johnson vs UGA pass defense: Johnson has progressed throughout the season, and he has thrown the ball well in back-to-back weeks. On the year, Johnson has only thrown for 1,128 yards with 7 touchdowns and 3 interceptions, but the danger for opposing teams lies in his duel-threat abilities.
Johnson isn’t nearly as capable a runner as Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs, but he can make plays with his legs. Dobbs hurt the Bulldogs when he got outside of the pocket, but missed tackles hurt them more. If Georgia can tackle more effectively, it has the athletes on defense to keep Johnson from keeping plays alive.
Kentucky has among the worst passing attacks in college football, while Georgia’s is slowly improving after a slew of tough outings. The Bulldogs should be able to make the Wildcats one-dimensional Saturday.
UK RBs vs UGA run defense: This is the matchup to watch. Kentucky’s rushing attack is what many expected Georgia’s to look like this season, and the Wildcats are fresh off an impressive 377-yard performance against Missouri.
Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benjamin Snell Jr. form one of the best 1-2 punches in college football and have combined for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Williams is a dynamic runner who can take it to the house at any point, while Snell is adept at breaking through tackles and gaining yards after contact.
Against Georgia, the Wildcats’ backs will have to earn every yard. The Bulldogs’ run defense has progressed throughout the season and is now among the best in the SEC. Georgia is giving up just under 110 yards per game on the ground and has held opposing runners to 3.24 yards per carry. This will be a tough challenge for the Bulldogs, though, and is a true strength-on-strength matchup.
UK WRs vs UGA secondary: Because of Kentucky’s ability to run the football, it isn’t a tremendous passing offense. Junior Jeff Badet leads all receivers with 496 yards and 4 touchdowns and is averaging a whopping 24.8 yards per catch. Garrett Johnson is Kentucky’s other top receiver and has 25 catches for 306 yards and 2 scores.
Georgia’s secondary has been beaten at times this season, but it’s primarily been tall, physical receivers who have given them trouble. Deandre Baker and Juwuan Briscoe have steadily improved this season, which has helped the Bulldogs tighten things up in the secondary. This matchup shouldn’t be too much of an issue for Georgia.
Georgia avoided any major coverage issues against Florida, but that could change against a dangerous Kentucky return game. Charles Walker has already taken one punt return to the house and is averaging 12.2 yards per return. On kickoffs, Badet and Snell are causing problems. They average about 25 yards per return and can gain many more than that.
The Bulldogs are much more dangerous returning punts than they are kickoffs due to McKenzie’s agility and speed. Georgia hasn’t scored any return touchdowns this season, though, and there have only been a couple big returns.
Field goals no longer look to be a major issue for Georgia, thanks to the emergence of Rodrigo Blankenship, who made all four of his attempts over the past two weeks. Austin MacGinnis has been steady for Kentucky this season and is making 75 percent of his kicks.
Punting has quickly become a problem spot for the Bulldogs, and the team’s average yards per punt have steadily dropped in recent weeks. Smart has expressed his worry over Marshall Long’s lack of hangtime, which could become a problem against Walker.