Georgia at Kentucky predictions: How can the Cats topple No. 1 on its home turf?

·8 min read

It’s almost football time in ... Athens, Ga. Here are some final thoughts and predictions about how the University of Kentucky’s game against Georgia might play out at Sanford Stadium on Saturday night.

‘D’ vs. ‘D’

Georgia and Kentucky, in a lot of ways, are the same football team. Both play with ferocious physicality on both sides of the front. Both want to run the ball as much as possible. Both have defensive-minded skippers who’ve taken their programs to a higher level than they were when they arrived. Of course, Kirby Smart had a better starting position at Georgia than Mark Stoops did at UK. Don’t forget, too, that the Bulldogs have an embarrassing advantage over Kentucky in terms of their in-state talent base, to the point that several in-state players who weren’t recruited by Georgia — Chris Rodriguez and Yusuf Corker chief among them — suit up for the Wildcats every Saturday.

Stoops’ 0-8 mark against Georgia is the last remaining eyesore on the head coach’s resumé. Defensively, Kentucky has played Georgia as well as any opponent it’s faced the last couple of seasons. Based on the performance of UK’s ball-stoppers so far in 2021, there’s little reason to think they won’t be able to extend that trend. The Bulldogs’ “D” is getting its due respect, but its counterpart from Lexington, arguably, is the most formidable it will have seen. Statistically, the Cats are comparable to Clemson, which held Georgia’s offense to a field goal in their season opener.

Success on one side of the ball, obviously, hasn’t translated to wins over Georgia though. But it’s at least set the table for Kentucky. Offensive confidence is burgeoning after UK turned in its most complete performance of the season in a 42-21 win over LSU, and that should further empower the defense to go out and do its thing. It better.

“Every time we break it down, we always talk about Atlanta,” Corker said. “This time we got a chance to really go do it.”

Being without two starters, Marquan McCall and Octavious Oxendine, on the defensive line would be troublesome any week of the season, but not having either in Athens is especially worrisome. Justin Rogers and Josaih Hayes have been strong in McCall’s absence, but the burden on both becomes even greater this week with Oxendine now sidelined for the remainder of the season. He was becoming a disruptive force, and that won’t be easily replicated by his replacements — senior Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, who started UK’s first three games at defensive tackle, and Kahlil Saunders, a true freshman who played like it against Florida. Sophomore Tre’vonn Rybka has spelled Josh Paschal at defensive end and could get some run at tackle, too, in an emergency.

“It’s gonna be a physical game,” Rybka said this week. “It’s gonna be all four quarters, to the last second.”

Even if UK is able to withstand those absences early on, Georgia has had a knack for wearing down the Cats, and being thinner in the trenches could prove destructive to their upset bid.

“This is a big, physical front,” UK defensive coordinator Brad White said of Georgia’s offensive line. “It’s hard to replicate. Obviously, we’re lucky enough to go against our offensive line in spring and fall camp. They get a taste of that. But even camp is nothing like game day. ... They’re gonna have to anchor in there and they’re gonna have to play big.”

Quarterback battle

If he can lead Kentucky to its first victory over Georgia since 2009 and a 7-0 start, Will Levis will become a legend in Lexington. His presence might be the single biggest difference between this edition of the Wildcats and recent ones that have tried to end that streak; the threat of his arm gives Georgia something else to worry about while it looks to stuff the run. It’s probably not a coincidence that the last time UK was able to score a touchdown against Georgia — 2018 — was also the last time it had a competent passing day. Terry Wilson was 23-of-29 for 226 yards and a score in that game, a 34-17 loss.

Kentucky has run the ball better against Georgia than any team not named Alabama the last two years. If that level of output can be matched and paired with any sort of dynamism in the passing game, a window or two could open for the Wildcats. And if that happens, they have to take advantage.

“(They’re) similar to Florida in a lot of ways where you might not get more than one chance to expose them on something that you’re trying to dial up,” UK offensive coordinator Liam Coen said. “Against Florida, the first third down of the game we have, we don’t throw it and the next time we come back to it, they had it fixed. We just can’t miss our (opportunities) in this game.”

Kentucky needs to make life as difficult as possible for Stetson Bennett, the probable starter for Georgia on Saturday with JT Daniels still nursing a lat injury. Daniels has worked out this week and could possibly give it a go if Bennett proves ineffective, but the former walk-on has won three straight starts and was able to manage a 14-3 win over the Wildcats in Lexington last season. UK picked him off twice and he was only 9-for-13 for 131 yards. He enters this weekend’s showdown with the second best quarterback rating in Division I football, behind Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall.

Kentucky is ninth in the league with 13 sacks (Georgia is first with 22), and has the fewest turnovers created in the conference (three interceptions and one fumble recovery). UK does have 24 pass breakups and 42 tackles for the loss to go along with 23 quarterback hurries on the season.

The “hurries” stat, in particular, sounds pretty solid until you juxtapose it with Georgia; the Bulldogs have had 109. Levis has responded well after taking body blows to this point, so at least there’s that. He’s also coming off his first game without an interception.

“You can’t force anything,” Levis said. “ ... There’s going to be pass plays where people aren’t open, so you just have to be smart with the ball, throw it away or tuck it down. Getting better at things like that just comes with the experience that I continually get every week.”


Auburn went up 3-0 on Georgia last week and appeared to have found a rhythm, but a Bo Nix interception on the third play of its second drive set Georgia up deep in Tigers territory. Auburn held the Bulldogs for a field goal, but punted or turned the ball over on downs in its next six possessions. Georgia in that span built a 24-3 lead.

It should go without saying that Kentucky can’t give the No. 1 team in the country extra possessions with which to attack a defense that’s likely to be on the field a lot regardless. But the Wildcats probably need to force some errors from the Bulldogs and give the offense short fields with which to work. That’s Upset 101 analysis, right there.

One of Bennett’s interceptions last year was the result of defensive tackle Phil Hoskins getting back his own deflection at the line. Kelvin Joseph made the other on a pass that was overthrown. Both occurred in UK territory and neither led to points.

Rodriguez didn’t score last year but did run for 108 yards on 20 carries. The Cats also didn’t have a playmaker like Wan’Dale Robinson to help them better capitalize on Georgia’s missteps. If Kentucky comes home a winner, both of those guys probably will have had incredible afternoons.

“If you wanna be the best you’ve got to beat the best,” Robinson said.

Final predictions

Georgia 24, Kentucky 10: I was on the record saying Georgia is the best team in college football long before Alabama lost. I still believe that. Are the Bulldogs unbeatable? No. But I just think the task before the Wildcats is Herculean: they’ll be playing in front of 90,000-plus fans, 95 percent of whom will be cheering against them, and will be at the center of the college football universe for a few hours. Upsetting Georgia would be difficult in Lexington; doing it this year, against this defense, is a whole other level of hard. UK keeps it respectable but is ultimately the latest group to be chewed up by the Dogs, who take their win streak in the series to 10 straight.

MVP: Chris Rodriguez. I think UK establishes the run well enough that he pops off for the Cats’ only touchdown in the game.

Good gamble: Take Kentucky to cover that 24.5-point spread. Georgia deserves respect, but that line’s just not favorable to the Bulldogs if you expect this one to play out similarly to their last few bouts with the Cats.

The last word

Defensive back Quandre Mosely is one of UK’s Georgia natives on the team. He feels good about his team’s chances.

“It’s a big game. They’re the No. 1 team. We’re really the No. 1 team, but they’re not bad.”

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