ATHENS — The Georgia-Kentucky football game last season meant everything to both teams, a de-facto SEC East Division title game of sorts.
Some considered it the biggest game in Kroger Field history in Lexington, and the Bulldogs dominated en route to their second consecutive SEC Championship Game.
One year later, the 6 p.m. matchup at Sanford Stadium doesn’t feature the same sex appeal.
Most of the Wildcats marquee players have moved on. Because of where the game sits on the schedule, a Georgia win over Kentucky doesn’t guarantee anything.
For (some) Wildcats fans, it’s just one game closer to basketball season.
For the Georgia fans, it’s …. well, no one seems to know for sure.
The No. 10-ranked Bulldogs were staggered by unranked South Carolina last Saturday, a 20-17 overtime decision gone wrong after Will Muschamp and his feisty Gamecocks took Georgia to the wire.
Normally reliable players like Rodrigo Blankenship and Jake Fromm failed their team in the clutch.
Young center Trey Hill was intimidated by Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw to the point of poor snaps.
The receiving corps was exposed for its lack of physicality against press coverage and inability to hold downfield blocks.
Kentucky, meanwhile, gathered itself for its first SEC win of the season, holding off Arkansas.
The Wildcats have their own narrative to deal with, and to provide more insight into that DawgNation reached out to long-time Kentucky journalist and columnist John Clay.
1 Kentucky fans had to know this season would not equal last season, is it fair to say they are handling the transition year well?
JC: Knowing there would be a drop-off from last year’s 10-3 campaign is one thing. Going through that drop-off is something else. Big Blue Nation knew it would be tough to replace players such as Josh Allen (No. 7 overall in NFL Draft), Benny Snell (all-time leading rusher), Lonnie Johnson (second-round pick) and Mike Edwards (third-round pick). It didn’t count on lopsided losses at Mississippi State (28-13 loss) and South Carolina (24-7).
This is a bridge year for the program. Mark Stoops believes the roster contains good young players who could develop into the likes of Josh Allen or Benny Snell. But there’s a learning curve and growing pains along the way. The fans are experiencing those growing pains, as well.
2. Mark Stoops is respected for raising the level of recruiting. That being the case, why isn’t UK better stocked with QBs and what does Stoops’ ideal QB look like?
JC: Kentucky’s quarterback room could double as an Urgent Treatment center. Returning starter Terry Wilson was lost for the season in just second game of the season when he tore a patellar tendon. His backup, grad transfer Sawyer Smith, is dealing with wrist, shoulder and lower leg issues. Third-stringer Walker Wood is coming off a pair of shoulder surgeries. And true freshman Nick Scalzo tore his ACL in the fall camp’s first scrimmage. It didn’t help that senior Gunnar Hoak became an Ohio State Buckeye as a grad transfer.
Wilson probably fits the prototype of Stoops’ ideal quarterback. The head coach wants a balanced attack, that leans more to the run. Wilson was a running threat who could also throw the football. He was showing significant improvement over last season before his season became abruptly came to an end.
3. What does this Wildcats’ offense do particularly well, and what is its Achilles Heel?
JC: When the Cats are clicking, they’re running the football effectively. Even with the loss of Snell, UK has three capable backs in A.J. Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez. With wide out Lynn Bowden playing quarterback and rushing for 196 yards in last Saturday’s 24-20 win over Arkansas, the Cats gained 300 yards on the ground.
The passing game has been the weak link. A banged-up Smith threw three interceptions against Florida, was just 15-of-41 with a pick-six at Mississippi State and threw for all of 90 yards on 32 attempts at South Carolina. Bowden is a terrific athlete, but there’s a reason that he was moved from quarterback to wide receiver when he arrived as a freshman.
4 Looking at the Big Blue Defense, where has it been most susceptible?
JC: The big question coming into the season was the secondary. Gone were the top five defensive backs in Johnson, Edwards, Darius West, Derrick Baity and Chris Westry. Then experienced safety Davonte Robinson tore a quad muscle before the start of training camp. As the season has progressed, however, the secondary has improved to the point where UK is 29th in pass defense efficiency.
After losing the sack machine that was Allen, Kentucky’s pass rush has been up and down so far. The Cats are tied for 43rd nationally in sacks recorded. They did get a key sack from Calvin Taylor and a hurry from T.J. Carter late in the win over Arkansas.
5. What does the Kentucky football program look like moving forward, beyond this season? Is there a sense UK is ready to make the same sort of investment in facilities and stadium expansion that would put it on equal footing with SEC Championship contenders?
JC: Despite the 3-3 season, the program is in a good place overall. The team is coming off a 10-3 season that included a Citrus Bowl win over Penn State. The stadium has been renovated and renamed (Kroger Field). The Cats are operating in a $50 million football training facility. Stoops is in his seventh year as head coach, equaling the longest tenure of any UK coach since Jerry Claiborne (1982-89).
The SEC is a beast of a league, however. Georgia and Florida aren’t going anywhere. Even on a down cycle, Tennessee whipped the Cats 24-7 last year. South Carolina snapped a five-game losing streak to Kentucky by spanking the Cats this season. And Missouri has won the East twice, something UK has failed to do since division play began in 1992. As Stoops himself has said, “No one in this league is interested in going backward.”
Georgia-Kentucky Game Week