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Georgia Bulldogs 2011 Season Preview: The Kentucky Game

When the Kentucky Wildcats visit Sanford Stadium on November 19 for the Georgia Bulldogs’ final game between the hedges of the 2011 campaign, the Red and Black will celebrate Senior Day. They will do well to recall what happened the last time the Bluegrass State Bobcats visited the Classic City. The beleaguered Bulldogs, fresh from an upset win over Auburn that capped off a 3-1 run during which the Athenians’ only loss was to the No. 1 Florida Gators, coughed up a 20-6 halftime lead at home, ultimately losing by a touchdown.

The ‘Dawgs held the ball for more than 33 minutes, moved the chains 22 times to the Wildcats’ 15, outgained the Blue and White by a 487-260 margin, and allowed the visitors to convert just four of a dozen third-down attempts. Unfortunately, four Georgia turnovers (including a Washaun Ealey fumble on the UK one yard line on the Bulldogs’ penultimate possession and a Joe Cox interception at midfield on the home team’s final drive) and 75 yards’ worth of penalties doomed the Classic City Canines in an embarrassing loss.

To a substantial extent, the ‘Cats returned the favor in Lexington last autumn, in a game in which Kentucky had custody of the pigskin for more than 32 minutes, and similarly surpassed Georgia in first downs (22-13) and in total offense (423-290), but was guilty of a quartet of giveaways to pace a 44-31 Bulldog victory. Last year’s shootout marked the ninth occasion in twelve series meetings that the Red and Black scored at least 30 points against the Blue and White, and it likewise marked the first time ever that Kentucky scored at least 30 points against Georgia for a third year in a row.

Evidently, such shootouts favor the ‘Dawgs, as the Red and Black are 7-0 all-time against the ‘Cats when both teams score at least 28 points, but, dang it, I’m ready to see Georgia start to clamp down again on Kentucky defensively. It shouldn’t be that dadgum difficult to do; after all, the 2010 Wildcats finished behind the Bulldogs in scoring offense, failed to crack the top half of the conference standings in rushing offense despite the presence of Derrick Locke in the UK backfield, and were limited to 23 points at Louisville, 17 points at Mississippi State, 14 points each at Florida and at Tennessee, and 10 points against Pitt in the bowl game.

The key, evidently, is location, location, location: Kentucky averaged almost 42 points per game in Commonwealth Stadium last year, but managed fewer than 19 points per contest in hostile or neutral venues. Even though 24 of Georgia’s series victories have come in Athens and 24 have come in Lexington, it appears that there’s no place like home when playing the Blue and White. (This, by the way, applied to their basketball team, as well.)

Clearly, former offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Joker Phillips’s philosophy is to outscore the opposition, because Kentucky ain’t stopping nobody; we are just about back to the point at which I will refer to the Blue and White as the Wil_cats, because they have no D. Last year, despite being solid against the pass, UK finished sixth in the SEC in total defense, tenth in scoring defense, and eleventh in rushing defense. (Georgia, by contrast, finished fourth, fifth, and seventh in those same categories, respectively, and the Bulldogs’ defense essentially was running in place.) As a freshman in 1980, Herschel Walker ran for 131 yards and a touchdown against Kentucky; there is absolutely no reason to believe Isaiah Crowell cannot duplicate that feat against the ‘Cats in 2011. Yes, UK returns a bunch of players on defense, but Bulldog fans may be forgiven for doubting the capacity of a bad defense to improve dramatically in its first year under a new coordinator.

The question for Coach Phillips this year is who is going to do all the scoring that will be required of his offense. Mike Hartline, who last year completed two-thirds of his passes for over 3,000 yards, is gone, as are Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews, who between them accounted for more than half of UK’s receiving last season. Because recruiting (particularly in the Peach State) has improved, the talent is there, and Kentucky brings back everyone you’ve never heard of, but how likely are the Wildcats to improve on either side of the ball when the program’s approach in recent years has been all about holding the line? At some point, there’s only so far you can go on soft scheduling and hiring head coaching retreads as defensive coordinators. (I’m looking at you, Mike Archer!)

Accordingly, we should draw solace from the knowledge that Joker Phillips’s next conference road win will be his first as a head coach, though we should recall, as well, that three of Kentucky’s four SEC losses in away games last year were by margins of ten or fewer points, and two of them were by just a touchdown. The ‘Cats are close, but it is not clear whether they are close in the sense of being almost there, or in the sense of being so near and yet so far. For their part, the UK faithful trust Mark Richt’s ability to right the ship in Athens. Here’s hoping they’re right, and that, even if Kentucky can make Bulldog Nation nervous on Senior Day, it’ll be close but no cigar for the ‘Cats when they take on the ‘Dawgs.

Also on Dawg Sports: Boise State game preview . . . South Carolina game preview . . . Coastal Carolina game preview . . . Ole Miss game preview . . . Mississippi State game preview . . . Tennessee game preview . . . Vanderbilt game preview . . . bye week preview . . . Florida game preview . . . New Mexico State game preview . . . Auburn game preview . . . Maple Street Press annual!

Go ‘Dawgs!