SEC Week 7 Primer: Kentucky has the stage at Georgia. Do the Wildcats have a chance?
Everything you need to know about this weekend’s SEC slate.
Game of the Week: Kentucky at Georgia (-21.5)
Is this the biggest football game in Kentucky history? One could make the case.
It’s certainly one of the biggest opportunities. The Wildcats have had their brushes with national relevance over the years, most notably in 1977, when they closed the season on a 9-game win streak and finished 6th in the AP poll despite being banned from claiming an SEC championship or playing in a bowl game by NCAA probation; and in 2007, when they climbed as high as No. 8 following a triple-OT upset of then-No. 1 LSU before limping to an 8-5 finish. (Kentucky’s only wins over an AP No. 1 are ancient history, coming in 1950 and 1964.) As recently as 2018, the Cats went into the Georgia game ranked 11th with the SEC East crown on the line, which is exactly the position they find themselves in this weekend. Unlike the current edition, though, none of those teams made it as far as midseason with a perfect record, and none of them played in a game with the potential to vault them into actual national contention.
To meet either of those criteria, you have to way, way back, to arguably the best season in school history: 1950. That team, led by up-and-coming head coach Bear Bryant, won its first 10 games and climbed as high as No. 3 in the AP poll before losing the regular-season finale at Tennessee. That’s the last time prior to this season that Kentucky has been 6-0, and it’s as close as any UK team has ever come to realistic sniffing distance of a national championship. An upset in Athens would put those kinds of aspirations in play in the home stretch for the first time in 70 years.
Now, if that strikes you as a little lofty for an outfit just a few weeks removed from trailing in the 4th quarter against UT-Chattanooga, you’re not alone. Vegas is with you: The 3-touchdown point spread is as lopsided as it gets at this time of year for a meeting of ranked teams with identical records, and a good indicator of what both the oddsmakers and the public thinks of the idea of including “Kentucky” and “Playoff” in the same sentence. That number tracks. Georgia has won 5 straight by at least 24 points apiece; Kentucky has won 4 of its past 5 by single digits, all but one of those wins coming at home. In the series, the Wildcats haven’t beaten UGA since 2009, or come within single digits since 2016.
Records notwithstanding, this is the Bulldogs’ 3rd game in as many weeks against a ranked SEC opponent, and just like the past 2 – combined score: 71-10 – it qualifies as a a “big game” only if it defies expectations of a routine UGA romp.
But a remote opportunity is still a real one. Historically, it may also be the best one Kentucky gets for a while. If we’ve learned anything is this upside-down season, it’s that no one is unbeatable and a lofty ranking is no insurance against chaos, right? The No. 2 team in the country at the moment ranks dead last in its own conference in total offense; this is not a season unfolding according to any recognizable logic. In that spirit, we’ll see how long Georgia and its mile-long injury report remain above the fray.
The stat: 12.5%
That’s how often opposing offenses have converted red-zone opportunities in touchdowns against Georgia’s defense, just one more of the many, many categories in which the Bulldogs lead the nation on that side of the ball. In 8 red-zone trips against UGA this year, opponents have settled for 4 field goals, come away empty 3 times, and cracked the end zone just once, on a 3rd-quarter drive in last week’s 34-10 win at Auburn. That’s on pace to be the best red-zone TD rate of any FBS defense since at least 2008, which is as far back as the statistic is available.
For its part, Kentucky’s offense has been solid in the red zone, converting 18-of-23 trips into touchdowns – a 78.3% clip, tied for 7th nationally. But of course, to make good on an opportunity inside the opposing 20 you have to get there in the first place, which Georgia has largely forbidden.
Auburn’s offense was the first this season to move the ball consistently enough generate multiple opportunities in the competitive segment of the game, including a 17-play, 68-yard march on the opening series (which yielded a short field goal) and a 12-play, 71-yard drive just before the half that ended with a turnover on downs at the UGA 3-yard line. Actually breaking through required possibly the best tight-window throw of Bo Nix’s life to put the Tigers in position and an extraordinary effort from one of the hardest-charging backs in the game to make it count.
His name is Tank for a reason. pic.twitter.com/hKzGGySdTn
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 9, 2021
That’s the first and only non-garbage-time touchdown Georgia’s defense has allowed this season from any distance, which I’m required to point out, in the year 2021, cannot be considered sustainable by any relevant precedent. And yet: 6 games and 3 ranked opponents in seems pretty dang sustained.
The big question: Can Kentucky’s offense generate big plays?
I’ll be more specific: Can Wan’Dale Robinson generate big plays?
Wan’Dale Robinson is special pic.twitter.com/bplOCrT3Ia
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) October 2, 2021
Robinson, a Kentucky high school legend who spent his first 2 college seasons at Nebraska, has been largely as advertised in the transition from red to blue, averaging 100.4 yards per game as a rusher and receiver with 7 plays of 30+, tied for the SEC lead. He’s as dynamic with the ball in his hands as any player in the league, and as versatile, capable of taking it to the house on screens and jet sweeps as well as a deep threat. Keeping him involved is a priority; from a defensive perspective, so is accounting for him on every snap.
Kentucky’s offense isn’t a big-play attack, in general, tending to lean as heavily as it can get away with on a methodical ground game. (RB Chris Rodriguez Jr. is a bona fide workhorse, churning out an SEC-best 128 yards per game on 20 carries, with superbly named backup Kavosiey Smoke and QB Will Levis making significant contributions; in last week’s blowout win over LSU that trio ran for 324 yards on 8.3 a pop.) Against Georgia, the body blows will be crucial in an effort to control the clock and shorten the game to the extent that it can potentially turn on just a handful of plays. But Robinson is the guy the Wildcats will be counting on to make those plays.
The key matchup: Georgia OT Jamaree Salyer vs. Kentucky DE Josh Paschal
Georgia’s quarterback situation remains TBD with JT Daniels still recovering from the muscle strain that’s sidelined him the past 2 weeks and backup Stetson Bennett IV holding up just fine in relief. Either way, the blindside has been on lockdown thanks to Salyer, a former 5-star who’s logged 17 consecutive starts at left tackle and has the distinction of being the only full-time SEC starter this season who has completely shut out opposing pass rushers, according to Pro Football Focus — he’s yet to allow a single QB hurry or hit. Salyer sat out the second half of the Auburn game with an ankle injury, but said later he felt like he could have returned and is expected to be back in the lineup on Saturday.
Josh Paschal is a bad man 👀 pic.twitter.com/ODIzpqY9d4
— Jacob Tamme (@JacobTamme) October 10, 2021
Paschal, a fifth-year senior who has quietly emerged as one of the league’s most complete edge players since overcoming a skin cancer diagnosis in 2018, will pose one of the biggest challenges of the season for Georgia’s line as a whole, which with the glut of talent at the position in the SEC is saying something. He’s one of only a handful of SEC defenders with 80+ PFF grades against the run and pass, and he ranks among the league’s most productive rushers with 24 QB pressures on the year. (He has come through on special teams, as well: His blocked field goal against Florida, leading to a game-changing touchdown going the other way, is the biggest play of Kentucky’s season to date.)
Paschal has been arguably the best player in the Wildcats’ 6-0 start, and if they have any chance of taking the next step his presence will be one of the key reasons why.
Kentucky’s defense is good enough to keep things … well, not interesting, exactly, since their success most likely translates to a low-scoring punt-fest, but at least close enough into the 4th quarter that an interesting finish is plausible.
The Wildcats excel at preventing explosive plays and will make Georgia’s offense work harder to move the ball than it’s had to since the Clemson game. But they don’t have the horses to out-Georgia Georgia. Unless Levis suddenly turns into Trevor Lawrence, UGA’s defense should leave the offense with all the margin for error it needs, and then some. In fact, as dominant as that unit has been, I’m not sure the actual Trevor Lawrence would fare much better.
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Georgia 27 | • Kentucky 10
LSU’s collapse at Kentucky felt like a test for the rest of the Tigers’ season that they failed miserably. Now, at 1-3 vs. Power 5 opponents and staring down a schedule that features ranked teams in 5 of the next 6 games, they look like a team in free fall under a coach whose time is running out.
The revamped offense has no identity. The revamped defense hasn’t demonstrated any meaningful improvement over last year against real competition. Their best player, dynamic WR Kayshon Boutte is out for the year after suffering a garbage-time injury in Lexington. The headliners on defense, blue-chip corners Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks, are also on the shelf, amid overt speculation that their absences have less to do with injuries than with abandoning a lost cause in preparation to enter the draft, in Stingley’s case, or the transfer portal, in Ricks’. Ricks’ mother actually felt compelled to go on the record to clarify that her son has in fact been playing through a lingering shoulder injury — he’s scheduled to undergo surgery — and is not merely opting out of a deteriorating situation. Vibes don’t get much worse than that.
LSU has rallied from low points under Ed Orgeron before, including last year’s out-of-nowhere upset at Florida (aka The Shoe Game) with half the two-deep out due to injury, COVID, or draft prep. That was a bigger stunner at the time as a lame-duck, 23-point road underdog than a similar upset would be this time around as a 10.5-point dog at home.
If there’s any urgency in the locker room to salvage Orgeron’s job, it needs to come through this week and next at Ole Miss ahead of an open date and a Nov. 6 trip to Tuscaloosa. Carry a 4-game losing streak into the bye, and the 2 weeks leading into the Bama game will be like watching a long walk to the gallows.
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• Florida 37 | LSU 20
The over/under in Knoxville is an astronomical 82.5, which tells you all you need to know about these teams on both sides of the ball. The quarterbacks, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, rank 5th and 6th nationally in pass efficiency with 25 touchdown passes and just 1 interception between them; the coaches, Josh Heupel and Lane Kiffin, have both built their careers on aggressive, shootout-friendly philosophies; the defenses are both allowing 30+ points per game vs. Power 5 opponents. Personally I’m a strong believer that every Ole Miss game should end with one side or the other attempting a 2-point conversion to win after trading touchdowns on the last 8 possessions of the second half, and once again that’s a very real possibility.
– – –
• Ole Miss 43 | Tennessee 38
Alabama doesn’t get many opportunities for a quick turnaround following a regular-season loss, but when they do the Tide don’t miss: Since 2008 they’re 7-0 the week after a taking an L, winning those games by an average margin of 23.6 points. Only one of them, a 14-13 nail-biter at Arkansas in 2014, was decided by single digits. If the outcome in Starkville is still in doubt after halftime, it might be time to start worrying about this team.
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• Alabama 39 | Mississippi State 19
This is the 1-year anniversary of the most controversial finish of 2020, a play that strained the usually routine concept of spiking the ball to stop the clock well past its breaking point.
This was ruled intentional grounding by Bo Nix with under 30 seconds left in the game.
Do you agree with the call? pic.twitter.com/ngtu0qAjGC
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 11, 2020
Long story short: Auburn won. But the near-upset was one of the first glimpses of an Arkansas team emerging from the dark ages of the Chad Morris era into a legitimately competitive outfit under Sam Pittman. Every so often you need to come out on the wrong end of one of the most bizarre plays of the decade to remind you you’re alive.
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Arkansas 29 | • Auburn 26
There’s no way to know exactly what to expect at this point from A&M, or from QB Zach Calzada, specifically, who after last week’s career-making turn in the Aggies’ 41-38 stunner over Alabama appears capable of landing just about anywhere on the map on any given Saturday. But he shouldn’t have to strain much against Mizzou: The Tigers rank 129th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense, and dead last against the run. A&M should be content to let Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane take the chance for a little stat-padding after surprisingly mediocre returns from the ground game over the first half of the season.
– – –
Texas A&M 34 | • Missouri 27
The Commodores and Gamecocks both enter this game winless in SEC play, with the loser standing a good chance of finishing that way. South Carolina’s offense is still finding itself, but DE Kingsley Enagbare vs. Vandy’s makeshift o-line is as severe a mismatch as you’re going to see this year in SEC play.
– – –
• South Carolina 36 | Vanderbilt 14
Week 6 record: 5-2 straight-up / 3-4 vs. spread
Season record: 45-14 straight-up / 21–35 vs. spread