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(John Raoux/Associated Press)
Georgia's young offensive line found itself stymied in short-yardage situations against Florida, and will challenged against Saturday by Kentucky

Georgia Bulldogs will be challenged on their core principles again by Kentucky

ATHENS — Discipline, composure, physicality.

Kirby Smart calls those “the pillars” of his Georgia football program. You’ll find them painted all over the player spaces inside the Butts-Mehre complex, most prominently in the weight room. They are the cornerstone principles on which Smart intends to build the Bulldogs into perennial championship contenders.

Georgia demonstrated what they mean last season. Living up to those principles is what lifted up the Bulldogs last year in their SEC Championship and College Football Playoff runs.

Not living up to them might be what holds Georgia back from being champions this year.

True freshman Cade Mays (77) has been thrust into a starting role at right guard for Georgia due to an injury to sophomore Ben Cleveland. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

We’ll find out a lot about that when the No. 6 Bulldogs (7-1, 5-1 SEC) travel to No. 11 Kentucky (7-1, 5-1) to settle the SEC East on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS-TV, WSB Radio AM-750, FM 95.5). The Wildcats have actually utilized those same principles to an even better effect this season to put itself in position to challenge Georgia for the Eastern Division’s berth into this year’s SEC Championship Game. And they’ll challenge the Bulldogs on that front Saturday.

Georgia’s ability to live up to those principles — and specifically that one about physicality — against Kentucky on Saturday will determine whether or not they return to Atlanta this year.

Just listen to what Smart said when he broke down Kentucky at Monday’s news conference.

“They’ve got a really good football program, a very physical football program,” Smart said. “In the last two years, each time we played them our players said, ‘That was one of the most physical games we had to play, Coach.’ They are tough and they are physical.”

“Tough and physical.” If I had a dime each time I’ve heard Smart utter those words since he arrived in Athens, I’d be a millionaire now three years in. Coming to Georgia from Alabama, being tough and physical is pretty much all Smart talks about. Above all else, it’s what he wants his Bulldogs to be.

And they’re trying to be that. They’re getting better at it, in fact, just like they got better at those other cornerstone principles earlier in the season.

Early on, the Bulldogs weren’t doing a great job when it came to discipline and composure. Yellow flags were flying from the back pockets of referees the first third of the season before Georgia was finally able to get that into check.

Then composure became an issue. We saw that severely compromised in the LSU game. The Bulldogs crumbled in the face of the atmosphere, adversity and opponent they faced at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 13th. That went for the players and the coaches.

But then Georgia improved dramatically on that front the next time out against No. 9 Florida this past weekend in Jacksonville. The Bulldogs showed discipline as the Gators gouged eyes and choked players at TIAA Bank Field. They demonstrated composure when they fell behind a minute and a half into the third quarter, then outscored Florida 23-3 the rest of the way.

The physicality part remains a work in progress. And that’s the biggest concern for the Bulldogs heading up to Lexington on Saturday.

The Gators exposed Georgia’s weakness in that regard last Saturday. Lest we forget, the Bulldogs failed to get into the end zone on seven plays from inside Florida’s 1-yard line.

You can gripe about Georgia’s play-calling on that possession, but those calls reflected those core principles. Let’s review them: RB dive left guard, RB dive left guard, RB sweep left end, fade pass left incomplete (interference/unsportsmanslike on Florida coach), QB sneak, QB sneak, RB dive left guard.

And then, field goal.

Never before has there been such celebrating on the opposing sideline after giving up a score.

“That’s probably the greatest goal line stand I’ve ever been a part of,” Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham told reporters after the game. “That many snaps. Honestly, I can’t even really say that I’ve had one that has been in that kind of game where you had that many plays inside the 1. That tops the hat for me. I was really proud of it, and I think it really says a lot about the attitude of our players and about their belief in what we’re doing, their belief in each other.”

That came at the end of third quarter with Georgia holding a precarious 20-14 lead. As Florida players jumped up and down on its sideline, it had the potential to swing the game the Gators’ way.

Thankfully for the Bulldogs, they remained disciplined and composed. Florida parlayed its excitement only into a field goal, and then Georgia followed with a 9-play, 75-yard scoring drive that effectively put the game away.

It bears pointing out on the ill-fated first-and-goal that Georgia’s offensive line for that series consisted of, from left tackle to right tackle: backup tackle Kendall Baker (senior), sophomore guard Solomon Kindley, senior center Lamont Gaillard, backup guard Cade Mayes (freshman) and redshirt freshman tackle Isaiah Wilson.

Starting left tackle Andrew Thomas and starting right guard Ben Cleveland were out of the game with injuries.

So the Bulldogs are going to get well and grow up at some point. That’s the positive in this. But, in the meantime, their shortcomings when it comes to line of scrimmage are going to follow them north to Lexington.

It also bears pointing out here that Kentucky also beat Florida this season and that the Wildcats’ defense ranks significantly ahead of the Gators in every category except pass defense. Meanwhile, Kentucky is playing at home at Commonwealth Stadium, which has been sold out for weeks in anticipation of this chance to play for the first SEC Championship Game berth in school history.

The Bulldogs, my friends, are going to be challenged on all three pillars on Saturday: discipline composure and especially physicality. The Wildcats feature the SEC’s leading rusher in junior running back Benny Snell, the SEC’s sack leader in senior linebacker Josh Allen and one of the league’s top tacklers in senior free safety Darius West. Thirteen seniors are counted among the Kentucky starters, 14 if you include kicker Miles Butler.

They were all on the field two years ago when the Bulldogs needed a last-second field to get out of Lexington with a 27-24 win. And they’ll not be intimidated about anything they’ve seen on tape from Georgia.

“All those guys are still there,” Smart said. “They’re really good football players. Their back end and linebackers, their defensive coordinator. … So they do a tremendous job, and we’ve got a lot of improving to do to be able to complement and to match up with these guys because they have a really good football team.”

Yeah, it’s just Kentucky. That’s what everybody is saying heading into Saturday’s game. But this is not your Mama and Daddy’s Kentucky. And Georgia is not yet what it’s going to be.

Ever since last season, the Bulldogs have been ahead of schedule with regard to Smart’s blueprint for success. They remain the SEC’s youngest team and one of the youngest in America. But nobody wants to hear that right now.

If Georgia gets a crack at first-and-goal on Saturday, it best be able to convert. Otherwise, the Bulldogs will be watching the Wildcats celebrating a victory on the football field like they haven’t in decades.

“Third and short is what you should want to be in,” Smart said. “… We’ve got to do a better job executing on those. And some games we’ve gone in with a game plan that we’ve converted all those. Then other games we haven’t, and we didn’t do a good job of that against Florida, and we got to improve it.”

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