The Georgia Bulldogs have rather a large game coming up in Lexington against the Kentucky Wildcats this Saturday night. Each squad appears resurgent after an 0-3 start in SEC play, and (amazingly) both teams are in the hunt for the Eastern Division championship (so much so that Joker Phillips is having to urge his team not to look past the ‘Dawgs; Georgia does not have similar problems under Mark Richt). In order to assess such a consequential contest, I cannot ask you to make do with a smidgen of substance, nor can I expect you to be content with a dash of detail, so I am here to offer you instead Too Much Information.
Georgia has recovered four fumbles. Kentucky has recovered four fumbles. Georgia has thrown three interceptions. Kentucky has thrown three interceptions. Georgia has turned the ball over seven times, matching exactly the number of passes the Bulldogs have picked off. Kentucky has turned the ball over six times, matching exactly the number of passes the Wildcats have picked off. Georgia and Kentucky are tied for second in the SEC in turnover margin at +4.
The recent turnaround by the Red and Black started with Georgia’s commanding victory over Tennessee two weeks ago. Typically, a triumph over the Volunteers bodes well for the Bulldogs when the Athenians take on the Wildcats: Georgia is 8-2 against Kentucky in seasons in which the Classic City Canines defeat Tennessee. When winning against the Big Orange, the ‘Dawgs are 4-1 against the Blue and White in Lexington. Those odds aren’t appreciably worsened by Georgia’s loss to South Carolina, either; in years in which the Red and Black come up short against the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs are 10-2 against Kentucky, with a 4-2 mark in the Commonwealth.
The thirteen trips into the red zone permitted by the Bulldogs are the fewest allowed by any team in the Southeastern Conference. The eleven red zone scores surrendered by the Classic City Canines are the fewest given up by any team in the league. The 25 trips into the red zone permitted by the Wildcats are the most allowed by any team in the Southeastern Conference. The 24 red zone scores surrendered by the Bluegrass State Felines are the most given up by any team in the league.
Georgia heads into Saturday night’s contest looking for the Bulldogs’ 50th series win over the Wildcats. Georgia has beaten Kentucky 25 times in Athens and 23 times in Lexington. (One of the Bulldogs’ wins came at a neutral site.)
The Blue and White rank second in the league in scoring offense, averaging 35.3 points per game. The Red and Black have held each of their first five conference opponents below those teams’ current scoring averages.
The Bulldogs are 15-8-2 all-time against the Wildcats in contests decided by seven points or fewer.
Kentucky ranks eleventh in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 29.9 points per game. Georgia has scored more points than the average allowed by three of the Bulldogs’ last four conference opponents.
Although the Wildcats typically outgain the Bulldogs by almost 35 yards per game, Saturday’s combatants both average 6.3 yards per play, tied for fifth-best in the conference. Likewise, while Kentucky trails only Arkansas in passing yards per game (270.6), Georgia’s fourth-ranked passing game (244.9 yards per contest through the air) actually averages more yards per pass (9.0) than the Wildcats’ does (7.9).
The road has not been kind to the Red and Black this autumn, as Georgia sports an 0-3 record in away games in 2010. However, this poor performance is a rarity for the Bulldogs under Mark Richt. From 2001 to 2009, the Athenians posted a 33-6 mark on their opponents’ home fields, including a 26-5 road record in SEC play. Prior to this year, no Mark Richt-coached Georgia team had ever lost two straight road games.
The Kentucky D surrenders 176.0 rushing yards per game. The only SEC squad to give up more yards per game on the ground is Vanderbilt, who concedes 191.8 rushing yards per outing. Georgia piled up 232 rushing yards in last week’s win over the Commodores.
Georgia and Kentucky are the only two teams in the SEC East to have carded a victory last Saturday. While neither has a winning record in conference play, both are in contention because no team in the division is above .500 against the rest of the SEC.
Kentucky kickers have missed four of their last seven field goal attempts, including a pair of 35-yarders and one 25-yard try. Hopefully, they’ll get the chance to miss a few more on Saturday.
Kentucky deservedly has developed a reputation as a second-half team, though not necessarily for the reason you may think. While the Wildcats are famous for their offensive prowess, the Bluegrass State Felines have scored 133 first-half points and 114 second-half points. Where their halftime adjustments have been most effective is on defense, as the ‘Cats have surrendered 124 points before the break and just 85 after intermission. Fortunately, Todd Grantham has been known to make a change or two at halftime, as well; the Bulldogs have conceded 66 first-half points and 56 second-half points this autumn. (Please note, for whatever it might be worth, that the 124 points Kentucky has surrendered in the first two quarters this year exceed the 122 total points given up by Georgia.)
Georgia and Kentucky essentially are tied in red zone offense; the Wildcats have scored 29 times on 33 chances, while the Bulldogs have put points on the board on 28 of their 32 trips inside the 20 yard line. However, the Blue and White have scored touchdowns on 24 of their deep drives, while the Red and Black have punched it into the end zone on just 18 such occasions.
A high-scoring game is expected on Saturday. In the last two outings between these two teams, Kentucky has scored 38 and 34 points, respectively (although the Wildcats have never scored 30 or more points in each of three straight series meetings with the Bulldogs). Georgia has scored 30 or more points against Kentucky in eight of the last eleven meetings between the two (although the ‘Dawgs have done so only once in the last four clashes).
If all goes according to plan, Saturday night’s contest should be the seventh series meeting in which both Georgia and Kentucky score at least 28 points against the other. The six previous occasions on which that occurred were in 1993 (33-28), 1994 (34-30), 1999 (49-34), 2000 (34-30), 2001 (43-29), and 2008 (42-38).
Georgia won all six of those shootouts.
Although this game pits the SEC’s seventh- and eighth-best teams against one another, Kentucky and Georgia are adjudged the Eastern Division’s second- and third-best teams, respectively. The blogosphere has dubbed the Bulldogs the "[m]ost schizophrenic team in the nation right now," characterizing Georgia as a team that "look[s] good one game and lousy the next." That description strikes me as bizarre and unsupported by evidence; it is one thing to call, say, Tennessee "schizophrenic" for its inconsistent performances from week to week, but the Red and Black haven’t been erratic.
There was a great deal of consistency on display during Georgia’s four-game losing streak. The offense was inept, the play calling was suspect, the defense gave up big plays and couldn’t get off the field on third down, and fumbles deep in enemy territory sealed the deal. The ‘Dawgs weren’t schizophrenic; they were bad, but they were a half-step away from being good.
After the embarrassing loss to Colorado, changes were made, the light bulb went on, and the team started to play up to its potential. In the last two weeks, the Bulldogs have been as consistent in a good way as they were consistent in a bad way before. The blocking has been better. The play calling has been less predictable. The team has played with intensity. In the last two games, Georgia has not turned the ball over and has turned opponents’ turnovers into 24 points while building up commanding halftime leads and coasting to lopsided victories in scoreless fourth quarters. Incidentally, since Mark Richt became the Bulldogs’ head coach, the Classic City Canines have gone 21-0 in games in which the Red and Black had no turnovers.
Undoubtedly, the caliber of the opposition has had more than a little to do with that, and there is no taking the Wildcats lightly. Kentucky took Auburn to the wire, upset South Carolina, has beaten Georgia twice in the last four years, is playing at home at night, and has demonstrated a talent for mounting second-half comebacks. This is a big game for both teams, and it is fair to say that, while a win over the Bulldogs would not give Kentucky its biggest victory of the 2010 season, a win over the Wildcats would give Georgia its most respectable scalp of the autumn. Hey, I picked Kentucky to upset the Gamecocks, so you know I’m going to give the ‘Cats their due.
Let’s give the ‘Dawgs their due, as well, though. Although, clearly, there has been a learning curve (reminiscent of the one seen at Alabama in 2007), the Red and Black are taking to the 3-4 system installed by Nick Saban’s former defensive line coach, Todd Grantham. Coach Grantham, like Coach Saban, believes in taking away the middle of the field, and the Bulldogs have done that. While the Classic City Canines remain susceptible to the perimeter passing game, the Red and Black are getting to the quarterback, stuffing the run, and cutting down on the penalties as established players like Justin Houston and Bacarri Rambo come into their own, younger players like Sanders Commings and Christian Robinson continue to step up, and improving players like Kwame Geathers and Alec Ogletree keep earning additional playing time.
For all the glaring weaknesses of the season’s opening stanza, Coach Grantham’s defense ranks in the top 30 nationally in all four major statistical categories, and is among the country’s top 20 teams in rushing, scoring, and total defense. Of particular note is Georgia’s No. 18 ranking against the run, as the ‘Dawgs have faced three of the league’s top eight running backs in Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard, Tennessee’s Tauren Poole, and South Carolina’s standout freshman, Marcus Lattimore. With Derrick Locke likely sidelined Saturday night, the Red and Black should be able to make the Blue and White one-dimensional on offense, while Georgia should be able to run the ball on Kentucky. Under Mark Richt, Georgia is 40-4 when a Bulldog player rushes for 100 yards. (Ironically, Caleb King carried for exactly 100 yards against the Buffaloes. Had he finished with 99 yards---had King’s last carry ended in a one-yard loss instead of a fumble---Georgia would have won that game.)
From the Wildcats’ side of the equation, it’s never a good sign when your head coach is talking about how the team is going to avoid a letdown. If Nick Saban couldn’t get the Crimson Tide to avoid a letdown against South Carolina after beating Florida, and if Steve Spurrier couldn’t get the Gamecocks to avoid a letdown against Kentucky after beating Alabama, how likely is it that Joker Phillips will be able to get the Wildcats to avoid a letdown against Georgia after beating South Carolina? I suspect there are more than a few Bulldog players who remember falling to Kentucky on senior night in what surely was the worst loss of the Red and Black’s dismal 2009 campaign. I believe Georgia will be the more focused team on Saturday, and, for that reason, I believe the visiting Athenians will escape the Commonwealth with a hard-fought win.
There’s also the fact that Uga VIII isn’t just undefeated; the Bulldogs haven’t been scored upon during his tenure. So we’ve got that going for us.
My Prediction: Georgia Bulldogs 41, Kentucky Wildcats 35.