No. 6 Georgia, No. 11 Kentucky meet to decide SEC East
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Sixth-ranked Georgia is used to playing on the national stage. No. 11 Kentucky not so much.
But the Wildcats must deal with the sudden spotlight of playing the program’s most important game in a generation.
The Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division title is on the line in Saturday’s Top 25 nationally televised matchup between Georgia (7-1, 5-1 SEC, No. 6 CFP) and Kentucky (7-1, 5-1, No. 9 CFP). It’s the schools’ first meeting since 2007 with both teams ranked.
In Lexington, discussion of Kentucky’s most significant football game since the 1970s has almost overshadowed buzz about the second-ranked Wildcats men’s basketball team’s upcoming opener Tuesday against hated rival Duke. Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops likes being part of the conversation but said earlier this week he wouldn’t discuss the potential impact with players.
“I probably need to calm them down,” the coach joked.
Not that Stoops needed to remind his players of what’s on the line.
“We know what’s at stake,” junior linebacker Kash Daniel said. “We know what’s riding on this game, and obviously it is a motivating factor. With big games like this it’s important to go into it thinking it’s just a normal game, because if you try to overdo it, mistakes happen.”
But he added, “this is obviously the biggest game I’ve ever played in.”
Off to their best start since 1977, the Wildcats are riding the momentum of an improbable 15-14 win at Missouri that has put them on the brink of their first division title. They held the Tigers without a first down in the second half and enter with the nation’s top scoring defense (13.0 points per game) along with the SEC’s No. 2 unit overall (295.3 yards).
Kentucky faces a Georgia squad that seeks to go unbeaten against the division for the second straight season. The Bulldogs are also riding an emotional wave after beating rival Florida 36-17 last week in Jacksonville, Florida.
They want a return to the conference championship game to maintain their national title hopes, but doing so means beating Kentucky for the ninth straight time. Georgia coach Kirby Smart warns that could be more difficult this fall.
Though his ‘Dawgs appear to have the same old offensive bite with quarterback Jake Fromm (16 touchdowns) and a formidable running back tandem in D’Andre Swift and Elijah Holyfield, Smart is reminding players they’re facing a completely different Wildcats team.
“It is going to be a four-quarter game because that is the kind of team they are,” Bulldogs junior tight end Isaac Nauta said of Kentucky. “They are a great team that is going to keep fighting. You know, they have a chance to go to Atlanta as well. They are going to be pumped up and ready to go.”
Some other things to watch as Georgia and Kentucky settle the SEC East:
BALANCE AND POINTS
Quarterback Terry Wilson’s season-high 267-yard passing performance and game-winning TD at Missouri finally showed the Wildcats can throw the ball. Now it’s a matter of carrying it over and mixing with SEC rushing leader Benny Snell Jr. (935 yards) to achieve the needed balance against a Georgia defense ranked just behind Kentucky at (306.1 yards). Kentucky will definitely need to score more than the 14 points it has averaged the past three games.
Fromm has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 1,649 yards and 16 touchdowns, including 240 yards and three TDs last week against the Gators. The sophomore’s completion rate has put him within reach of breaking Hutson Mason’s school season mark of 67.9 set four years ago.
Wildcats senior linebacker Josh Allen has been all over the field this season and thrived in the pass rush with a SEC-best 10.5 and 14.5 tackles for loss. He’s had help from Daniel (54 stops) and Jordan Jones (46), but the corps will face their toughest task in slowing Fromm along with Holyfield and D’Andre Swift, who have combined for more than 1,000 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. Daniel and Jones will play somewhat one-handed with each nursing injuries.
Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship has converted all 36 extra-point attempts and made 13 of 15 field goals for 75 points. He’s 1 of 2 from 30-39 yards and 6 of 7 from 40-49 and has made his lone chance from 50-plus yards.