The moment most of you reading have been waiting for has finally arrived. Kentucky will be hosting Georgia in the de facto SEC East championship on Saturday afternoon at the artist formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium. CBS will be in town and a UK victory will guarantee a Big Blue invasion in Atlanta on the first weekend in December. For me, it hasn’t quite settled in yet and this moment is still very surreal.
When I began my journey as a writer, I hoped one day I could be able to write about Kentucky legitimately contending for an SEC chip. However, no way I saw it coming this season.
It’s been a crazy run for the Wildcats and Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs will be their stiffest test to this point. Georgia has, by far, the most talented roster UK has seen with an offense that will present quite a few challenges for UK’s stellar defense. However, there are multiple facets where UK matches up very well with the Dawgs.
Time to learn all about Smart’s third football team in Athens.
Nuts and Bolts
After a disappointing first season at his alma mater, the former UGA safety lived up to all of the hype in 2017. Under Kirby Smart’s guidance, the Bulldogs would post a 13-2 record with an SEC title, a Rose Bowl win, and a runner-up finish. The Dawgs were an overtime away from their first national championship since 1980 but Smart’s second season set the table for what many people thought would be the beginning of the south’s next dynasty.
After an unbelievable run on the recruiting trail where the Bulldogs pulled in the nation’s top class, it’s been clear this season that UGA still has some ground to makeup to catch Alabama and Clemson. For the third year in a row, Georgia was smacked by an SEC West foe on the road and it’s clear the Bulldogs have had a difficult time replacing superstars Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Roquan Smith. With that said, they’re still 7-1 and a victory away from consecutive division titles for the first time since Mark Richt’s second and third seasons.
UGA’s roster is again loaded with star talent but the Bulldogs are very young at many positions. Smart’s team is explosive and powerful on offense with a defense that is fast and dominant in the secondary. They are your typical Georgia football team.
To no one’s surprise, this has been a very one-sided series. This doesn’t have the embarrassing losing streaks attached to it, but Georgia has had their way with Kentucky over the years. Currently, UGA leads the series by a count of 57-12-2. Since 1991, Kentucky has only been victorious twice and this remains UK’s only permanent SEC opponent that Mark Stoops doesn’t own a victory over.
Out in the desert, Georgia is laying nine points with a total of 44. That’s a project score of 24.5-15.5. UGA has been at least a touchdown favorite in every game this season. The under has hit in every SEC game for UK this fall. UK has been a very live dog in recent memory. Against ranked teams since 2015, UK is 7-1 against the number with three upset wins.
Under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, UGA is putting up 38.6 points per game and 7.1 yards per play. Both of these are high marks in the Kirby Smart era and rank top three in the SEC. This is a well-rounded attack.
The Dawgs are averaging 221.6 yards per outing on the ground to go with 236.1 yards in the air. They run it nearly 15 times more per game but their balance is what makes this offense very dangerous. Jake Fromm’s ability to consistently make accurate play-action throws from the pocket is their best attribute.
The former blue-chip quarterback was featured in a reality show that is now on Netflix in high school and was the star of a Little League World Series team. He’s no stranger to the spotlight and with a five-star true freshman phenom breathing down his neck, he hasn’t backed down all season.
After completing over 60% of his attempts with 24 touchdowns and nine yards per attempt as a rookie, Jake Fromm is having an even better year in 2018. The Warner Robins native is putting up 9.6 yards per pass attempt and is completing 67% of his throws. He’s tossed for 16 touchdowns and has been very steady. After a rough performance against LSU, he answered the bell in the victory over Florida. Fromm passed for three touchdowns and 240 yards in the best performance of his career.
Fromm has had a great run and he’s certainly on his way to break a lot of records in Athens. But he wouldn’t be having this success without the ground game. It starts with a powerful offensive line and some really good tight ends, but once again the Bulldogs are loaded in the backfield. Elijah Holyfield leads the squad with 559 yards on a 6.6 yards per carry average. He is a bulldozer.
D’Andre Swift was a can’t miss recruit out of Philadelphia and had a really good freshman season in a limited role last year. After dealing with a groin injury since fall camp he is now starting to round into form.
Swift was UGA’s most productive back against LSU and Florida. There aren’t many more talented runners in the country and he could be ready for his first 20-carry game of the season.
On the perimeter, UGA has a lot of talent but that is no surprise. In the slot, Mecole Hardman is lightning on the football field and is a threat to take it to the house whenever he gets a touch. Outside, Riley Ridley is a solid option and he leads the team in receptions. Jeremiah Holloman is fresh off a huge performance against Florida and Jake Fromm loves to target him on fades.
The most dangerous part of the passing game could be at tight end. In recent weeks, this has become a big emphasis in the passing game and Isaac Nauta has been the recipient. For the fourth game in a row, UK will be facing a future NFL tight end. Matching up in the red zone and third downs will be key.
In the skill groups, it has gone to script for Jim Chaney’s offense. The same can’t be said for the big guys.
Last week against Florida, UGA played four left tackles and injuries have caused a lot of shuffling. UGA has been without their right guard for quite a bit and that has forced the backup left tackle Cade Mays, a true freshman, to start at guard. Then sophomore left tackle Andrew Thomas, who started as a true frosh, was banged up against Florida. If you’re looking for one weakness on the offense it is here. Lamont Gaillard keeps it all together, however, He’s one of the finest centers in college football.
Kirby Smart had a hell of a reputation after running the Alabama defense for years under Nick Saban. When he made the move to UGA, he brought along Alabama staffer Mel Tucker to run his defense. The results have been very positive.
Even with plenty of new starters, the Dawgs allow just 16.4 points per game and 4.8 yards per play. Both of these rank in the top five of the SEC. UGA has plenty of talent at every level, but their greatest attribute has been their ability to force turnovers.
UGA ranks 21st in the country in turnover margin and in road wins over South Carolina and Mizzou, they forced two first quarter turnovers that resulted in defensive scores to allow the team to get off to a fast start.
A big part of this ability to win the turnover battle has been the great play of the secondary. Deandre Baker, seen above, might be the best cover corner in the country and he’s well on his way to becoming an All-American. At safety, Richard LeCounte and J.R. Reed can be seen making plays all over the field. True freshman Tyson Campbell was a can’t miss recruit and the five-star true freshman is living up to the billing in a full-time starting role.
In the win over Florida, nickel Tyrique McGhee was a key cog in the defense forcing three turnovers. There are a lot of talented secondaries in the SEC, but UGA’s is about as good as anyone’s.
The biggest surprise of the season has been this front’s inability to stop the run and rush the passer. No one saw this coming. UGA desperately misses the erasing ability on Roquan Smith at middle linebacker. But losing two seniors at outside linebacker has stung much more than many expected.
Per S&P+, UGA’s rush defense ranks 77th in the FBS and their sack rate of 4.7% ranks 102nd. Opponents that can run the ball in between the tackles have been able to stay ahead of the chains and have had a great deal of success in short yardage situations. The Dawgs don’t often allow explosive plays but foes have been able to consistently gash them on the ground.
If you’re going to beat Georgia, it’s not going to be with chunk plays. Their secondary is excellent whenever plays get to their level. With a player the caliber of Deandre Baker, they often can leave him on an island and use their other athletes to focus on everything else. Winning the battle of third down could be the biggest key in the football game.
Special Teams Breakdown
UGA is excellent in the third phase and it starts with kicker Rodrigo Blankenship. The junior ranks second in the FBS in touchback rate (89.8%) and is threat to make from 50-plus. He knocked in the game-winning field goal on UGA’s last trip to Lexington.
Punting is the weakness of the group with Jake Camarda only putting up a 38.0 net yards average. The Dawgs don’t allow many returns but quite often the punts end up going short.
In the return department, Mecole Hardman will be the best player UK’s kick cover teams have seen. He has one return touchdown on the season and is very dangerous.
Keys to Victory
- UK must get Benny Snell rolling early and often. Perhaps the biggest weakness for this Georgia team is stopping the inside run and that is the identity of the offense. Drake Jackson, Bunchy Stallings, and Logan Stenberg must return to their early season form to pave the way for UK’s junior tailback.
- Matt House’s defense has had their way with every opponent they’ve seen this season, but UGA will present a unique challenge. The Dawgs are balanced and excel in the play-action passing game. Their slow pace would make a comeback very difficult. If UK can stop the run in early downs, that would open pass rush situations to take advantage of a young and banged up offensive line. Do that and UK could pickup some very key turnovers.
- Balance will be very important and on paper this a very bad matchup for UK’s passing game. Last week they had success with short throws to Bowden, but with UGA’s man coverage ability should shut those down. How UK schemes up the passing game will tell the tale on if the Wildcats can consistently move the football. Establishing the run could open up the play-action game.
- In UGA’s three SEC wins away from Sanford Stadium, the Bulldogs forced an early first quarter turnover that resulted in immediate points. With an electric crowd, UK cannot give away any free ones early. Survive the first half and then go win it in the fourth quarter.
Georgia has one of the best fan bases in all of college football and they travel in droves to Lexington. They’re a passionate bunch who love to tailgate and watch college football. There’s a good chance you could be around them inside Kroger Field.
If you hear them barking at you do not be alarmed. This is one of their many game day traditions.