ATHENS — Regular readers of “An Opposing View” no doubt will remember Joe Mussatto as our guest for Kentucky week last year. If you do, then you’ll know you should pay attention to what he has to say.
Mussatto provided a very accurate breakdown of last year’s game, in which he predicted “Georgia will win in a close one.”
Boy, howdy, was he on target. You’ll recall that the Bulldogs won 27-24 on Rodrigo Blankenship’s 25-yard field goal with no time remaining.
Spoiler alert: Mussatto isn’t expecting the same kind of anxiety-riddled contest for Georgia fans this year (see his full prediction below). But as our second-year Kentucky football beat writer for SEC Country, Mussatto knows the Cats better than anybody. So he does his usual bang-up job of filling us in what to expect from this year’s team. Be sure to follow Mussatto on Twitter to keep up with everything going on in UK’s camp.
As for a little background on Joe, he’s originally from Oklahoma City and went to the University of Oklahoma, so he went from covering one Stoops brother to another. By the way, Mark Stoops, brother of Bob, is doing a pretty good job. He has the Wildcats sitting at 7-3 overall, 4-3 in SEC play.
Here are Mussatto’s answers to the questions I sent him, followed by a detailed prediction:
1. Obviously, 7-3 is good in the historical context of Kentucky football. But it looks like the Wildcats were tantalizingly close to having nine wins at this point. What do the make of the Cats’ football season in Bluegrass Country?
Mussatto: Mark Stoops was asked Monday about how close Kentucky could be to 9-1. Even he couldn’t stop himself from saying “What if?” The Wildcats were blown out at Mississippi State, but they led both Ole Miss and Florida in home games late in the second half. Kentucky ended up losing both. The Florida streak was extended to 31 years and I’m not sure if the fan base has recovered, especially with how bad the Gators have looked. But for all those who are saying Kentucky is close to being 9-1, keep in mind that the Cats came dangerously close to losing home games to Eastern Michigan, Missouri and Tennessee. Kentucky’s best friend has been its schedule. The bottom line is that 7-3 is a great season by Kentucky’s standards and the Cats are one win away from their first eight-win regular seasons since 1984.
2. I’m assuming everybody’s happy with Mark Stoops these days? Please tell us about the contract extension/new contract he recently received and how do you believe he and Kentucky fit in as the Eastern Division continues through this transitive state?
Mussatto: Kentucky isn’t close to passing East programs like Florida and Tennessee, but things are much more stable in Lexington than they are in Knoxville or Gainesville. Stoops’ contract will be extended by one year for every season in which he leads Kentucky to seven wins. Stoops earned that seventh win last Saturday, and his contract was extended to 2022 — a season in which he’ll be due $5 million. If Kentucky wins 10 games in a season, Stoops gets a two-year extension. And on top of those provisions, he nets a $250,000 bonus for every UK win starting with its seventh. So yeah, it’s pretty good to be Mark Stoops right now given that contract. Kentucky is committed to him and back-to-back seasons with four SEC wins is impressive given where Joker Phillips left the program.
3. The Bulldogs know all about Benny Snell from last year when he was so effective against him. You see him every week. Does he belong in the same class as the other elite backs in the SEC? And do you expect to see UK run him a lot out of the Wildcat formation like it did last year, especially after seeing what Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson did last week?
Mussatto: I think he deserves to be in that class. He’s second in the SEC in rushing yards behind Kerryon Johnson and he’s tied for the league lead with 15 rushing touchdowns. He’s scored three touchdowns in each of his last three games. There’s a good chance Snell finishes his career as the best running back in school history. He’s only a sophomore and he already holds the school record for career rushing touchdowns. He’s also the only UK back to rush for 1,000-plus yards in back-to-back seasons. As for the wildcat, Kentucky hasn’t used the formation as much as last season but it’s still a part of the offense. Expect to see Snell taking snaps in short-yardage situations. Freshman receiver Lynn Bowden is a faster and shiftier option out of the wildcat.
4. Where do you think Stephen Johnson ranks among SEC quarterbacks and do you expect Kentucky to use the passing attack much against Georgia’s defense?
Mussatto: I’d put him in the five-to-seven range, and that’s a big improvement compared to where he was last season. He’s completed 63 percent of his passes and that’s second in the conference behind only Jarrett Stidham at Auburn. He’s sixth in the conference with 180 passing yards per game but has thrown only 10 touchdowns against four interceptions. He’s also averaging 35 rushing yards per game and is very good when reading whether to keep or hand off. Better than Johnson’s physical ability has been his toughness and knack for winning games. He’s 14-7 as Kentucky’s primary quarterback. The offense is established through Snell, but how much will Kentucky be able to run on Georgia? Johnson has to make Georgia respect the pass if Kentucky is going to have any chance.
5. What’s your assessment of Kentucky’s defense and, first and foremost, its ability to stymie Georgia’s rushing attack?
Mussatto: Kentucky has been the worst defense in the SEC against the pass, but the Wildcats are giving up only 122 rushing yards per game. That stat might be a little skewed though. A run-first team like Mississippi State got whatever it wanted on the ground. Kentucky’s linebackers are the strongest group for Stoops’ defense, and they along with the defensive line need to play their most physical game to have a shot at slowing down Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Georgia has the advantage up front and it’ll likely be a big day for the Bulldogs on the ground.
I expect Georgia will be extra motivated coming off its loss to Auburn and with a bid at the College Football Playoff still within reach. Kentucky has made significant strides in the last two years, but Georgia still has the advantage when it comes to talent. That’ll be evident in the battle up front. Georgia’s offensive and defensive line will control the game and the Dawgs will win big. Georgia 41, Kentucky 13