Back in June, I wrote an article claiming the Kentucky Wildcats would find a way to knock off Georgia this weekend. At the time, we hadn’t seen this team in action, and the vast majority of fans were quick to pile on in disagreement.
Here are just a few of the responses I got at the time:
“Whoa there, Jack!”
“This article does not hold water, as much as I wish it did.”
“Another complete joke of a post…”
“Let’s see….UK gets blown out against UGA each game since Stoops has been at UK. This year, UGA has one of the better O lines in SEC football along with a stable load of talent at RB….UK has Elliot coaching his 3-4 defense with Matt Elam at the nose, and little else at LB and DL.
This is laughable at best.”
Yet here we are, Kentucky is essentially bowl eligible, and the opportunity is there for the Cats to knock off Georgia this weekend. The momentum is building for UK, while Georgia is struggling to find a true identity and have underwhelmed under first-year head coach Kirby Smart thus far.
Here were my five reasons why I felt UK would defeat the Bulldogs to start the year, compared to what we know about the team today:
1. Kentucky has the talent to make it happen
The team is now almost entirely made up of Stoops’ recruits, so there are no “Joker’s leftovers held this team back” arguments made in the first three years of the Stoops era. This is the fourth straight year of a top 40 recruiting class, two of which being top 25 quality. There are over 20 4-star and a few five-star recruits rated by at least one recruiting service, with players like Garrett Johnson and Chris Westry who weren’t considered four-stars certainly exceeding expectations. UK has never had more talent on paper than this team has, and it’s time to prove it against a quality opponent. Wins like Missouri, South Carolina, and Vandy have been fun in recent years, but it’s time to beat the big boys and make national headlines. This game is certainly their chance.
This remains true, as the talent on Kentucky’s roster is greater than it ever has been. That being said, UK’s success has extended to those beyond the four and five-star prospects, and into the land of high-two and low-three star guys out of high school. Benny Snell has become a superstar, Jordan Jones is the defensive MVP, Stephen Johnson is 5-1 as a starting QB, Tavin Richardson has the best hands on the team, etc. It has been a well-balanced effort all around with talent, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. UK only has 11 seniors on the roster, and the majority of starters on both sides of the ball will be returning next season for the Wildcats.
The stars have lived up to the hype, while those many considered merely role players to start the year have absolutely flourished. For the most part, the collective roster has overachieved based on expectations set at the beginning of the year.
2. Georgia will have a question mark at QB
True freshman Jacob Eason will likely make a push for the starting job this offseason, and very well may accomplish that. Yeah, the guy is rated as a five-star prospect in nearly every recruiting service out there and is considered one of the top prospects of the 2016 recruiting class, but he’ll still be a freshman. A new level of energy consumes the stands at Commonwealth when Georgia is in town, and with a team right on the fringe of a bowl game, UK will be playing with a new level of swagger. That alone can cause a few rookie errors that could make or break the game for the Cats, especially with the best secondary in Kentucky history led by Chris Westry, Derrick Baity, and Mike Edwards keeping him honest.
Jacob Eason eventually earned the starting job, and has shown some good things for the Bulldogs this season. That being said, he has shown all of the flaws you’d expect a true freshman competing in the SEC to have. He has made erratic decisions throwing the ball, taken unnecessary sacks, and has turned the ball over against physically imposing defenders. He has maintained just a 115.25 total QBR, falling second to last in the SEC (only Vandy’s Kyle Shumur follows). To put it in perspective, Stephen Johnson is sitting pretty at a 133.46 total QBR, good for 7th in the SEC.
The freshman has thrown for 1509 yards, 10 TDs, and five picks, completing just 53% of his throws. Eason’s struggles will likely continue against UK’s impressive secondary.
3. The score has been relatively close in the UK-UGA series recently
Yes, UK hasn’t won against the Bulldogs since 2009, but the Cats have kept it relatively close dating back to the Rich Brooks’ era. There have certainly been outliers, namely the 59-17 slaughter in 2013 and the incompetent defensive showing in 2014’s 63-31 loss, but the vast majority have been close. In 2012, the Cats fell to the 11th ranked Dawgs 29-24, and only lost by nine, 19-10, in 2010. Even last year, the contest was up for grabs for a few quarters until the wheels fell off in the latter half of the game. Especially at home, history is in favor for the matchup to be competitive, and this could be the year UK finally gets over that victory hump.
Unless history has dramatically altered overnight, nothing has changed from this argument. Kentucky has gotten their bell rung by the Bulldogs a few times in recent history, but there have been several occasions where UK has kept it relatively close, at least for a few quarters of the game. UK’s last victory against the Dawgs was back in 2009, where they won 34-27 in Athens.
One thing that has changed, however, is the eerie comparison between the 2006 Wildcat football team led by Rich Brooks to this year’s squad. As many know, Kentucky defeated Georgia 24-20 that season to spark a 5-1 finish to the year, leading the team to a bowl win and a final record of 8-5. UK is on a three game win streak right now, and could make that four with a win on Saturday, making an 8-5 finish (including bowl) entirely possible.
4. Georgia plays Florida before, Auburn after
Georgia will be in a dog fight at home against the Gators beforehand, and then will have Auburn to look forward to the week following our matchup with them. A sandwich of two powerhouses is extremely favorable for the Cats, as not only will the Bulldogs be worn down from the week prior, they’ll also be inclined to look ahead to the matchup against the Tigers in their pursuit of the SEC Championship game. With the Cats ready for a battle, we may catch them at a good time and pull off the upset.
Georgia isn’t necessarily fighting for an SEC Championship game at this point in the season, but the Kentucky game is sandwiched between two massive games on the year.
The Bulldogs lost to Florida 24-10 in Gainesville last Saturday, where the score made the game seem a lot closer than it actually was. Georgia managed to run for just 21 yards on the ground, their lowest total since 1996, and failed to establish any type of real offense. The Gators wore them out as the game progressed, so hopefully that leaves a lasting impact on them for this weekend.
Auburn is also playing at an extremely high level right now, as Gus Malzahn has somehow righted that ship into a legitimate squad in the SEC West. Georgia knows they have a real test with the Tigers in two weeks, and may be looking ahead to them at home. This situation changes a little bit due to Georgia’s recent struggles, but I still expect them to view UK as the “little guy” and come out flat in Commonwealth.
5. Simply put, they have to
UK’s schedule is certainly a little more difficult this coming season than it has in the past few years, there’s no denying that. There are a few “gimmes,” and several other winnable games, but it will without a doubt be a brawl for six wins this year. With the future of the program on the line, this may just be a game they have to win to get a ton of pressure off their backs. A lucky catch here, a favorable spot there, a turnover or two, etc., Kentucky just has to catch a few breaks and win this game.
This may actually be the most inaccurate statement of the five, considering the Cats really don’t have to win the game this Saturday at all. UK has all-but secured a bowl bid, Stoops’ job as head coach is safe, and the team is in sole position of 2nd overall in the SEC East. Do they need to win on Saturday? No, not really. Would it be massive for the program and place us legitimately in contention for an SEC East title? I’d say so. The “brawl for six wins” sucked to start the year, was stressful there in the middle, but feels pretty damn good right about now.
The days of “must-win” for Mark Stoops are over, for now at least.
Instead of waiting a few weeks to officially become bowl-eligible against Austin Peay, let’s just get it over with this weekend.