My colleagues have already previewed and predicted the first 6 games of the 2012 Georgia Bulldog football season at this point. That brings us to the October 20th trip to Lexington to visit the Kentucky Wildcats. After the jump I'll tell you everything you need to know about the game, and the opponent. Behold the majesty of the Kentucky Wildcats . . .
SB Nation Affiliate: A Sea of Blue.
2011 Record: 1-0 versus Tennessee. 4-7 versus everyone else. 2-6 in the SEC.
Mascot: The mummified left pinkie of Adolph Rupp. It's believed to have magical powers and is credited with raising 34 Kentuckians from the dead, helping 725 blind Kentuckians see, and singlehandedly populating the town of Berea. Oh, and when necessary a Wildcat. Because the mummified pinkie of Adolph Rupp doesn't do handstands, or operate teeshirt cannons. It's unseemly. Unlike point shaving, which is how a true gentleman sportsman earns a little side income.
Location: Lexington, Kentucky. As I've said before, Lexington is not a bad place to visit. It's a college town of relative sophistication, with the addition of one element that no other SEC environ can claim: ponies. There are horse barns in the Lexington metroplex which make my house look like a dump. Yours too. I have a friend who practices law in the area. His specialty? Equine law. The guy writes contracts which govern the breeding arrangements of championship thoroughbreds. I understand that given the amount of money involved this is necessary. I also understand that it is one of the reasons that when super-intelligent aliens invade our planet we will make for fascinating study.
But I digress. Lexington is an easy trip up I-75 from Georgia (literally, it sits right on the interstate). You have to go through Knoxville to get there, which is unfortunate, but worth it because you also get to go through a stretch of the Cumberland mountains that I maintain is what Heaven looks like. Except in the Sweet By and By, everyone will have their teeth.
Coach: Joe "Joker" Phillips, Jr.* Accomplished bassist. Former Ambassador to Badassistan. Current punching bag. I maintain that Paul "Bear" Bryant was the greatest college football coach of all time. He may have also, depending on who you ask, been a legendary jerk. But nevertheless, the man knew how to coach a football team. Bear Bryant left the head coaching job at Kentucky to take over a miserable Texas A&M squad from Ray George. Why? Because the basketball coach at Kentucky could be a trained bonobo named Elmer and he'd still be more beloved than the greatest football coach in Kentucky history.
At any rate, Joker Phillips enters his third season at the helm of the Wildcat football squad. And by Kentucky standards, it hasn't been that bad. The highlight came at the end of 2011 when Phillips found himself down to his third string quarterback and decided instead to teach a wide receiver 4 or 5 plays and see what happened. The result was the first victory over Tennessee since before Bill Clinton was shy around girls. We can take from this that Joker Phillips is the Bear Grylls of SEC coaches. If he needs to drink urine to survive and fashion a solar power system from green pond algae and hog renderings, he can.Here's what he's working with:
Offense: Kentucky could start anyone at QB. Really, if zombie Jackie Gleason waddled out and called Steve Spurrier a sumbitch, I wouldn't be that surprised. Senior Morgan Newton has been the Wildcat QB of the future since at least 1994. Sophomore Maxwell Smith filled in for 3 games last season after Newton went out, but was then replaced by WR Matt Roark for that game that officially put Derek Dooley on the hotseat. Roark graduated, and therefore won't be playing QB, but Eastern Kentucky transfer Jacob Russell might if Newton or Smith falter and/or suffer grievous bodily injury.
At receiver keep an eye out for La'Rod King. The 6'4, 220 pound senior is a matchup problem, a good route runner and makes tough catches. In short, he's the kind of guy who a smart coach can keep feeding the ball in an effort to ruin your team's night. King snagged 40 catches for 598 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, eminently respectable numbers given that he may have been catching passes from Natalie Portman at one point last year. Really, I don't know why she's not in the derby to start this season. She's taken as many snaps at QB as everybody on the roster not named Morgan Newton. I'm also excited about redshirt freshman WR Bookie Cobbins. Mostly because he's actually named Bookie Cobbins.
Kentucky also has one of the top offensive linemen in the country in guard Larry Warford. Warford earned 2nd team All-SEC honors in both 2010 and 2011. If you're a football geek like me, spend some time ignoring where the ball goes and watch Warford work. I think the coaches sold him short last season. This kid's good, and he'll end up playing on Sundays. At 6'3 and 340+ pounds, he's one of the few offensive linemen you'll see on par with Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins sizewise.
At tailback Kentucky returns 4 tailbacks with at least 40 carries in 2011. Former walkon CoShik Williams sits atop the depth chart, but Raymond Sanders and Josh Clemons, both of whom missed significant time with injury in 2011, will also see action. Clemons is an intriguing player, a big back out of Atlanta who received some interest from Georgia before signing with the Wildcats. He started as a true freshman, and may retake the position depending on how he comes back from the knee injury that ended his rookie campaign.
Defense: Kentucky loses 6 starters off a defense that just completed its first season under a new coordinator and scheme. That makes it hard to know how much they will progress/regress in 2012. I'm betting we see a defense in October that is better assignment-wise, but is still limited by depth concerns. The Wildcats' strength on defense lies up front where another awesomely named 'Cat, junior Mister Cobble, looks to shoehorn more accolades into his collegiate career. He'll share the line with Donte Rumph. They combine to form 646 pounds of trouble for undersized interior linemen.
Those two will be joined by returning starters Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham at defensive end to form a Kentucky defensive front that will be more experienced and sound than they have been in recent memory. But Kentucky will be rebuilding almost from scratch in the defensive backfield, having lost both cornerbacks. Senior Cartier Rice is likely to be joined on the outside by some combination of freshmen and sophomores.
At outside linebacker keep an eye out for sophomore linebacker Alvin Dupree, a product of Wilkinson County High in Irwinton. It's rare that I say Georgia really and truly missed on a kid. Dupree may be one example. As you see the 6'4, 245 pounder roaming sideline to sideline making plays, I challenge you not to imagine him doing it in red and black.
The game: As mentioned above, Georgia will travel to Lexington on October 20th. The Bulldogs will be coming off a bye week. The 'Cats will be coming off a roadtrip to Arkansas. Which given what we know so far about the Johnelle Smith school of coaching could mean anything. Really, I have no idea how good Arkansas will be this year, though I suspect that Tyler Wilson and crew will be favored, that Kentucky's defensive backs will spend the day running around chasing shadows, and that we'll catch them a little leg weary after a long game and a decently long flight home. If the Bulldogs triumph over South Carolina on October 6th, we may well be the clear SEC East leader at this point. And we'll have a date in Jacksonville with the Florida Gators coming up the next week. Combined those factors spell trap game to me. Kentucky has a long history of giving Georgia more game than they should. This one will be no different. But in the end, even in horse country, Joker Phillips doesn't have the horses to win this one. Final score: UGA 34, UK 20.
*Joker Phillips got his nickname from his grandfather as a way to distinguish the young man from his like-named father. I assume that Joker Phillips' father must therefore have been a serious man, or that he did not wear white and green facepaint and terrorize Gotham City. The Wildcat Media Guide is silent on this issue.