ATHENS – Well, it’s pretty simple at this point. The Bulldogs (4-4, 2-4 SEC) have to win two of their final four games to become bowl eligible. One of their best opportunities to secure one of the victories comes Saturday at Kentucky. But it’s not going to be easy.
These aren’t your same old Wildcats. At 5-3 overall and 4-2 in conference play, they’re currently second in the SEC East, two full games ahead of Georgia. And they’re built quite similarly to the Bulldogs, relying on a strong running game and some talented skill players to lead the way.
“They are a very much-improved team, especially from the summer breakdown we had watching them,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “They are doing things really well, especially offensively running the ball. They are a physical team. Having talked to several teams that have just recently played them, they’re sore after the game. They’re a physical bunch and do a good job getting after you. We’ve got a tall task in order to stop that run game and also to get ours going, so that’s the challenge in front of us.”
Georgia and Kentucky have faced four common opponents. The Wildcats did something the Bulldogs couldn’t when they defeated Vanderbilt 20-13 by on Oct. 8. Florida blew them out 45-7 in Gainesville and they beat South Carolina (17-10) by a touchdown while Georgia won 28-14 in Columbia. Kentucky manhandled Missouri 35-21 in Columbia last Saturday, a team against which the Bulldogs needed a touchdown with a minute to play to win 28-27.
The Wildcats will be extremely motivated for 7:30 p.m. matchup as they’re in position to qualify for a bowl berth for the first time since 2010. Not only that, but Kentucky actually can still win the East if it beats Georgia and Tennessee and Florida loses at Arkansas and LSU.
There is no such scenario for the Bulldogs. But it has been 20 years since UGA has not qualified for a bowl berth. Here’s what has to happen to move a step farther away from such a fate:
REESTABLISH THE RUN GAME
It has been 20 years since Georgia rushed for fewer yards than it did against Florida this past Saturday when it had 21 yards on 19 carries. Coincidentally, that came against Kentucky in 1996 when the Bulldogs had just 16 yards. If Georgia is to have any hope of winning Saturday, it can’t have anything approaching that bad of a day running the ball.
The Bulldogs have had a few bad rushing outings this season, which has sunk them from their perennial spot in the top third of the SEC statistics to their current spot of eighth (173.8 ypg). The good news is stopping the run is not exactly a strong suit for the Wildcats. They’re giving up 196.5 yards per game, which is ninth in the league.
The bad news is that’s still better four of the SEC opponents Georgia has faced this season in South Carolina, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Missouri. So it doesn’t necessarily mean the Bulldogs have a decided advantage in this area. Georgia has to show improvement blocking up front and give tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel more room to operate than they’ve had of late.
CONTROL KENTUCKY BACKS
The Bulldogs are known for having one of the best collection of backs in the league, but Kentucky has a pretty good set themselves.
Stanley “Boom” Williams, who hails just down the road from UGA in Monroe, is the SEC’s third-leading rusher at 102.6 yards per game. But the Wildcats have another budding star in the backfield in freshman Benny Snell, who’s ninth in the league at 82.6 ypg. Add to that group senior Jojo Kemp, who has 1,505 yards and 16 TDs in his career, and it’s evident why Kentucky is one of the league’s best running teams at 220 yards per game. That’s nearly 50 yards a game better than the Bulldogs, by the way.
So it’s going to be up to Georgia control that three-headed monster. The Bulldogs are fairly proficient against the run. They enter Saturday’s contest fourth in the SEC at just 109.8 yards. In this particular game, they should be able to load up against the run and put keep the ball in the hands of quarterback Stephen Johnson. Johnson is could but has a tendency to turn the ball over.
WIN FIELD POSITION FOR ONCE
One of Georgia’s biggest obstacles to overcome in the Florida game was field position. The Bulldogs average field position to start drives against the Gators was the 28.5-yard line. That dropped to the 21.5 when a long interception return and two last-minute meaningless drives at the end of the game are removed.
Florida had just 231 total yards of offense, so inability to flip field position was a result of poor punting. The Bulldogs utilized both freshman starter Marshall Long and junior backup Brice Ramsey in the game, but neither was productive. They averaged 32 yards between them, which meant they were giving up an average of 15 yards per possession exchange.
The good news is Kentucky struggles in the same area. It is 13th in the league in punting at 35.7 yards while Georgia is last at 34.8. But the Wildcats are good returners, ranking fourth and fifth, respectively on punt returns and kickoff returns. So the Bulldogs must also improve in kick coverage.
GET TOUGH IN RED ZONE
One of Georgia’s most dramatic regressions from last season to this one is in the area of red-zone defense. That’s defined as keeping your opponent from scoring in the area from your own 20-yard line back to your goal line. The Bulldogs went from leading the SEC in that category a year ago to coming in dead last this one.
Georgia’s opponents are scoring 92.3 percent of the time when they reach that territory. For perspective, Florida leads the conference at 68.8 percent and Arkansas’s in the middle at 80 percent. What’s worse, only Ole Miss (21) and Missouri (20) had allowed more touchdowns than Georgia (19).
It’ll be best to keep the Wildcats out of that area all together. But when it does, the Bulldogs simply have to be tougher and more determined to keep them off the scoreboard.