September was kind to both Kentucky and Georgia. October, not so much. Both teams enter Saturday after losing three of their last four football games. In UK’s previous two matchups, it’s been outscored 94-37 in two uninspired blow outs. Georgia hasn’t fared much better as it lost to its arch rival Florida preceded by a concerning, touchdown-less 9-6 win over Missouri. UGA hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in nearly ten quarters.
Realistically or not, fan grumblings are commonplace in both Lexington and Athens. The Dawgs were the preseason favorites to win the SEC East with an outside shot at the national championship. Dawg legendary QB Fran Tarkenton has publically questioned the Georgia coaching staff, specifically defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. National media are asking if the time has come for the highly respected Mark Richt to move on.
Kentucky’s seasonal goals seemed to have change weekly. In September, competing for the SEC East wasn’t unrealistic. Now with four games remaining, the Cats are fighting for bowl eligibility and battling to bring a portion of the BBN back into fold.
Saturday can be best summarized as a game of questions. Which Georgia team shows up? Will the Dawgs show fight? Which Kentucky team will take the field in Athens? Have the Dawgs cashed in their seasonal chips with little to play for? What is progress for Year 3 Mark Stoops? Is Mark Richt’s job realistically on the line?
Both are without their top running back. Heisman hopeful Nick Chubb was injured on October 10 in Knoxville. Boom Williams went down against the same Tennessee team in Lexington. Both head coaches have overhauled depth charts in hope of a final four-game spark. For a noon kickoff between 5-3 Georgia and 4-4 Kentucky, this game contains many juicy subplots.
Position Group Analysis
— When given time to throw, Patrick Towles has shown flashes of grandeur. He’s also been errant and inconsistent with a 9-10 touchdown-interception ratio. Against Miss State and Tennessee, the game’s circumstance and opposing pass rush influenced production. Both games’ score turned lopsided in a hurry. Freshman Drew Barker saw action against Miss State, but was injured. His health and early game production may determine if he receives meaningful snaps in Athens.
— In its rival game against the Florida Gators, Mark Richt trotted out first-time starting quarterback Faton Bauta. The result was bad. Four interceptions later, UGA is yet to name a starter against UK. Most likely senior Greyson Lambert will get the call. The former Virginia Cavalier, Lambert had started seven games and much like the Georgia offense, his performance declined along with Chubb’s injury. For what it’s worth, last update on Bauta was he is now a scout team safety.
Running Back: Georgia
— In the month of September, Georgia averaged 257 yards rushing per game. In October, that number plummeted to 136. The loss of All-American and Heisman hopeful Nick Chubb rocked the Georgia football program. By all accounts, Chubb is a team leader and fantastic young man. Unfortunately, injuries happen. Former high school All-Americans Sony Michel and Keith Marshall have filled in, but with lesser success. Brendon Douglass has provided tough yardage, but Chubb’s absence started a downward spiral for this position and team. But beware, the Dawgs are still ultra-talented at running back.
— Mikel Horton’s Tennessee game performance marked the first look of promise meeting production. Mikel was UK’s only offensive bright spot by rushing for over 100 yards and doing so in a physical manner. JoJo Kemp is at the ready, but expect to see more of true freshman Sihiem King, who has Boom like explosiveness.
Offensive Line: Georgia
— The fact the UGA gets the nod in this category speaks more to Kentucky offensive line woes than to Georgia’s success. No way around it: the Dawg OL has vastly underachieved. In the preseason, media and coaches pegged the group as the SEC’s and perhaps the nation’s best offensive line in college football. In the past three games, UGA’s rushing production has regressed from 165, 120, to 69 yards rushing. Depth chart changes have ensued. All-SEC guard Greg Pyke was relegated to second team. The only constant in this week’s lineup is center, Brandon Kublanow.
— Coach John Schlarman’s crew has to get right. However it does so is irrelevant. Ironically, the Wildcat straight line run blocking was effective against Tennessee. However, surrendering 22 QB sacks on the season is good for dead last in the SEC. UK has to find one offensive aspect it does well and continue to do so. Georgia’s athletic pass rushers are a major concerning going into Saturday.
Wide Receiver/Tight End: Kentucky
— This was a close comparison. For the last time, I’m giving UK receivers the benefit of the dropped passes doubt. However, statistics back up this projection. Kentucky has two receivers (Baker and Johnson) in the SEC’s receptions per game category and Garrett Johnson is one place higher than UGA’s top receiver in receiving yards per game. Tight end CJ Conrad has to be targeted and thrown to at a much higher rate.
— Georgia is led by senior receiver Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell is UGA’s sixth all-time receiver with 155 career grabs. He’s led or tied for the team’s receiving yards in seven of eight games this season. Mitchell is joined by Terry Goodwin, Reggie Davis, and tight end Jeb Blazevich. Blazevich and CJ Conrad are virtually the same player. Isaiah McKenzie has been hampered with a hamstring injury. If you remember, McKenzie torched the Cats in 2014 with a punt and kickoff return for touchdown.
Defensive Line: Georgia
— 2015 recruiting class’s No. 1 defensive tackle Trenton Thompson has quickly developed into a steady defender. Nose guard Chris Mayes, defensive end Sterling Bailey, and defensive tackle John Atkins join Thompson to form a formidable and disruptive defensive front.
— Kentucky is still trying to figure out life after Melvin Lewis. The senior’s absence has been felt on third downs and on the scoreboard. Nose tackle Matt Elam and Adrian Middleton are rotating to provide run/pass combination. Cory Johnson/Regie Meant and Farrington Huguennin have not generated a consistent or effective pass rush to alter opposing game plans.
— The Dawg linebackers are pros backed up by pros. For example, SAM linebacker is manned by future NFLer Leonard Floyd. Behind him on the depth chart is another Sunday player, sophomore Lorenzo Carter. Jordan Jenkins, Jake Ganus, and Tim Kimbrough make up arguably the most talented linebacker corps in the SEC. If that skill has met production is questionable, but UGA is currently the SEC’s fifth rated overall defense. When watching the game, athletic ability of the UGA linebackers will be noticeable.
— Another position group with a fluid depth chart, Georgia doesn’t have individual players that are ranked high in SEC defensive statistics. Collectively, UGA is ranked 13th in interceptions, just one spot ahead of Kentucky. However, as a team it ranks second against the pass. A great deal of this can be attributed to the pass rush. Juwuan Briscoe and Malkom Parrish start at cornerback, with safeties Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders. All listed and their backups were highly recruited athletes that brought several stars to Athens.
— Mark Stoops has also shaken up his secondary depth chart. Kentucky will start two true freshmen on Saturday: cornerbacks Chris Westry and Derrick Baity. Redshirt freshman safety Mike Edwards has overtaken senior AJ Stamps in the lineup. Strong safety Marcus McWilson is now playing a hybrid linebacker position. I like the future of this group, but it will be tested.
Special Teams: Even
Kentucky has faced the SEC’s first, second, third and fifth ranked kickoff return teams. Going into Saturday, Georgia is 13th; UK is fourth. Dawgs and Cats both average 34 yards per punt. Concern here is returner Isaiah McKenzie’s return from injury. As stated earlier, Isaiah had himself a day last season against the Cats by returning both a kickoff and punt for touchdown.
What does all this mean?
Two teams with much to prove will square off on Saturday at noon. A plethora of factors indicate that Georgia is prime for the upset: Noon kickoff, losing three out of four and out of SEC East race, Mark Richt and staff scrutiny, questions at quarterback, and an offense that hasn’t scored a touchdown in ten quarters scream of a potential let down performance. But, Kentucky is not the same team that enjoyed a promising September. It has also lost three of its last four with the past two being embarrassing routes. A player’s only meeting was conducted. IF Kentucky can somehow right the ship…….