LEXINGTON, Ky. – Greetings from Kentucky’s Kroger Field – it’s no longer Commonwealth Stadium – where there is a decidedly blue hue being cast over everything. That extends from the first row of field-level seats all the way up to the sky, which is white cloud-dotted but also mostly blue. So it’s a beautifully crisp, cool afternoon here in horse country, where the No. 6 Georgia Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1 SEC) will race No. 9 Kentucky (7-1, 5-1) for the right to represent the East in the SEC Championship game.
In a few words, this basketball town is on its ear for today’s football game. There is a sea of blue surrounding the 61,000-seat stadium with the new name, and the fan base is in an unprecedented lather about the opportunity to play for a conference championship for the first time since division play began in 1992.
But it’s even bigger than that. My esteemed colleague, AJC sports columnist Mark Bradley, a Kentucky alum, tells me in no uncertain terms that it is the biggest Kentucky football game in his lifetime. He was born in 1955, which was four years after Bear Bryant and Babe Parelli led the Wildcats to the Sugar Bowl. Try wrapping your head around this one: UK has a winning SEC record for the first time since 1977.
That, my friends, is what Georgia is dealing with today.
As usual, the Bulldogs’ huge and loyal following is here is good numbers, and I’m eager to find out how many actually get inside the stadium. This game has been sold out for a month now, which tells me that the DawgNation was probably lining up for tickets before Kentucky arrived here with its lofty goals still intact.
No matter. The home crowd, atmosphere and noise Georgia will be dealing with today will be its greatest challenge. And don’t scoff at that. That was a significant issue when the Bulldogs were here two years ago, and then Kentucky was playing only to become bowl eligible. Georgia struggled and needed four field goals from Rodrigo Blankenship – including a game-winner as time expired – to pull out a 27-24 victory.
This year’s game could be similarly tight. Georgia has hovered around an 8- to 9-point favorite in sports books after opening the week favored by double-digits. That means a lot of people are putting their money on the Cats. And that was also reflected by a lot of the national college football analysts on pregame TV broadcasts.
Me? I’m less concerned for Georgia about the football matchup than I am the psychological ones. Everybody’s talking about Kentucky running back Benny Snell and outside linebacker Josh Allen, two of the SEC’s best at their respective positions. And they indeed represent advantages for the Wildcats.
But I also think Georgia coach Kirby Smart, his staff and his collection of former blue-chip recruits are capable of scheming for one premier running back and one edge-rusher. They represent about the only two Kentucky players that could start for the Bulldogs.
Which is not to downplay the other 20 of Kentucky’s starting 22. They include 13 seniors and five more juniors. They’re a veteran bunch, the way Georgia was last year when it made its run to the SEC Championship and the College Football Playoff. That’s not to be trifled with. All those players were playing here two years ago when the Bulldogs and Hot Rod broke their hearts yet again.
If Georgia is to avoid what would be a heart-breaking loss this time, it will need to withstand that tidal wave of emotion and passion that will be flowing from every corner of this place in the early going. That will mean sticking to its guns, not doing anything stupid and just chopping wood, to borrow Smart’s overused phase. If the Bulldogs can do that, then it’ll just become about football and blocking and tackling and executing.
Georgia has been winning that game just about every week the last two years. This is new ground for the Wildcats. But they sure are enjoying being the center of the football universe for one weekend.
More than 400 media members – or about 150 more than usual – are here to chronicle this game. SEC Nation is here, too, and rode to their stage on Kentucky thoroughbreds.
The Bulldogs need to be sure Kentucky’s ride ends here. I think they will. But it won’t be as easy as a lot of Georgia fans think.