3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Georgia -22.5, Over/Under: 44.5
A pair of unbeatens are set to square off today in Athens, as the surprising (No. 11) Kentucky Wildcats look to pull off another upset, this time against the mighty (No. 1) Georgia Bulldogs, who have ascended to the top of the college football world. It’s a new day in Lexington, for as of this moment in 2021 the University of Kentucky (6-0, 4-0 in SEC) is finally a football school, which are words that we highly doubt anyone in the country considered ever to be realistic. That’s right folks, the Wildcats are off to their best start since 1950 when some guy named Paul Bryant led the program to their first (and only) Southeastern Conference Championship. While the man who would immediately depart the bluegrass state and go on to craft an everlasting legacy in Tuscaloosa known simply as the Bear, the school would embark on a sensationally listless 58-year span consisting of just seventeen winning campaigns and a winless drought in bowls that lasted for TWENTY-TWO years. Indeed, theirs was the laughing stock of the mighty SEC for ages until a certain somebody named Mark Stoops arrived in 2013 with a plan to transform them into an outfit as blue-collar as the shade worn on their backs. Going just 12-24 through his first three years with the program, Stoops relentlessly continued to build and build before ultimately breaking through with a magical 10-3 campaign in 2018, culminating in the school’s highest postseason ranking (No. 12) since 1977 and a victory in the Citrus Bowl, their first in a decade. By heavily mining his home state of Ohio, Stoops has put together one of the most consistent developmental programs in the conference, mixing that heartland grit with enough southeast talent at the skill positions to make the Wildcats as formidable as any other side in the SEC. With that said, formidable is no longer enough for the 54-year old, for Kentucky is leveling up on and off the gridiron; formerly quiet Commonwealth Stadium enjoyed a $120 million renovation resulting in the rowdy Kroger Field, which has recently provided the backdrop for major upsets of the likes of (then No. 10) Florida (20-13) and LSU (42-21). Furthermore, the program’s budget has gone from $16 million in 2014 to reportedly $29 million as of 2021, and with a $45 million indoor practice facility in the works Stoops and his coaching staff should be able to entice even more top-tier recruits to think about coming to Lexington instead of the traditional powerhouses in the BIG Ten and SEC. As for the work that they’ve been putting in on the field, Stoops outsourced to the professional level in a bid to improve the passing game, hiring (former Los Angeles Rams Assistant Coach) Liam Coen as his new Offensive Coordinator. Coen will be looking to adapt (his mentor) Sean McVay’s system to the collegiate level with designs on bringing more balance to the attack. His fingerprints can be found in the form of (Starting Quarterback) Will Levis (64.4%, 1134 YDS, 8.4 Y/A, 11 TD, 6 INT), a transfer from Penn State who was ironically recruited by Coen in high school and specifically targeted during the transfer portal. Though the passing game is certainly far from prolific at this point, it’s still improved greatly from last season; Kentucky ranked dead-last in the league in passing offense in 2020 (121.5 Y/G), and has thus far seen that figure rise to 197.7 yards per game, with Levis completing 64.4% of his attempts for 1,134 yards on a healthy 8.4 yards per attempt, with eleven touchdowns and six interceptions. With that said, the foundation of this Offense remains the running game, which has churned out 214.2 yards on a robust 5.6 yards per carry. After ranking fifth in the SEC in rushing yards despite splitting carries last year, (Junior Tailback) Chris Rodriguez Jr. (120 CAR, 767 YDS, 6.4 Y/A, 6 TD) has absolutely thrived in Coen’s outside zone system, racking up a whopping 767 yards (5th in FBS) on 6.4 yards per carry, highlighted by 147 yards in last weekend’s stunning evisceration of LSU. However, as with any team coached by a member of the Stoops family, the Defense serves as it’s backbone, and this incarnation of the Wildcats is no different. A year after finishing fourth in the SEC in Total Defense (380.7 Y/G) and first in turnover differential (Plus-10), Stoops’ troops have yielded just 17.5 points per game (20th in FBS) on 305.2 total yards, including 193.7 against the pass and another 111.5 versus the run. Safeties, Yusuf Corker (36 TKL, 2 TFL, 1.0 SK, 6 PD) and Tyrell Ajian (28 TKL, 1 INT, 3 PD, 1 TD) have been ballhawks in the center of the park, combining for sixty-four tackles, a sack, an interception, and nine defended passes, while (Sophomore Edge-Rusher) J.J. Weaver (17 TKL, 6.5 TFL, 4.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT) has been a nightmare after missing the end of last season with a torn ACL. It should be interesting to see how this unit continues to hold after suffering some heavy losses in the trenches, with (Defensive Linemen) Marquan McCall (6 TKL, 2.5 TFL) and Octavious Oxendine (15 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 SK) lost to season-ending injuries. Under Stoops, Kentucky has lost each of their eight meetings with Georgia, including last year’s 3-14 Halloween fright-fest at Kroger Field in which the hosts could muster just 229 total yards, a dismal ninety-one of which attributed to the pass. In a series that consists of seventy meetings, the Wildcats have won just twelve of them, with their last victory occurring back in 2009, a 34-27 upset in Athens no less. Of course, a win today would also mark the program’s first victory over a top-ranked opponent since performing that miracle against No. 1 LSU back in 2011. In competing in the SEC, you could imagine that they’ve had plenty of practice against No. 1, facing the nation’s top-ranked school on four occasions since that watershed triumph over the Tigers.
Meanwhile, Georgia (6-0, 4-0 in SEC) is enjoying it’s first No. One ranking since 2008 on the strength of being the lone powerhouse within the Preseason Top-10 to avoid a calamitous upset. They also have a pair of the strongest victories on paper, besting (then No. 3) Clemson (10-3) on a neutral field, which came weeks before blanking (then No. 8) Arkansas (37-0) in Athens. However, perhaps the most impressive thing about (Head Coach) Kirby Smart’s charges is the fact they’ve managed to do all of this despite a lingering issue at the game’s most important position, Quarterback. You see, the Bulldogs struggled in this regard a year ago, and didn’t find a solution until (USC transfer) J.T. Daniels (76.1%, 567 YDS, 8.0 Y/A, 5 TD, 2 INT) became healthy enough to take over for (fifth-year Senior) Stetson Bennett IV (69.4%, 746 YDS, 12.0 Y/A, 8 TD, 2 INT). Daniels really got (Offensive Coordinator) Todd Monken’s unit rolling over the course of the final four games, completing an efficient 67.2% of his passes for an average of 307.7 yards per game with ten touchdowns in comparison to just two interceptions, all the while pushing the football downfield on a very healthy 10.3 yards per attempt. To put things into perspective, there have been only four 300-yard passing games during Smart’s tenure at Georgia, and this kid was responsible for half of them. With a proper offseason of preparation and a clean bill of health, you can understand why there have been huge expectations for the Dawgs in 2021, though Daniels has once again been beset by injuries, relegated to just three games due to a strained lat muscle. Though he’s been practicing more frequently throughout the week, Smart has stated that the Junior will be a game-time decision for today’s showdown with Kentucky, though if he can’t go then there shouldn’t be cause for concern as the aforementioned Bennett has proven to be more than simply a capable game manager in his stead. In three starts this season, the super senior looks far more comfortable within Monken’s scheme than he did a year ago, connecting on nearly 70.0% of his attempts while averaging an impressive 12.0 yards per pass, with eight touchdowns opposed to a pair of interceptions. Hell, he’s even proven to be a threat with his legs, rushing for 126 yards on sixteen carries. Whomever gets the nod today will have no shortage of weapons at their disposal, which believe it or not was a real concern coming into the campaign given the absence of (Junior Receiver) George Pickens, who will miss the season with a torn ACL. The Bulldogs have five different players with ten or more catches, with (Tight End) Brock Powers (20 REC, 315 YDS, 15.8 Y/R, 4 TD) leading the way with twenty receptions for 315 yards and four scores, stepping up in the wake of another talented performer, Darnell Washington (1 REC, 25 YDS, 25.0 Y/R, 0 TD), who has seen action in just one game due to a lingering foot injury. With all that said, the biggest proponent of Georgia’s torrid start despite the situation at Quarterback has been the utterly DOMINANT play of the Defense, which by any metric has been the best in the nation thus far. Brace yourself, folks, for Smart’s troops have relinquished a scant 5.5 points per game (1st in FBS), including just two touchdowns and a grand total of twenty-six points over the course of six games. In fact, six points of that total are credited to a pick-six, and if they manage to keep this up they could become one of just four teams over the past twenty years to permit fewer than double-digits, the first since Alabama back in 2011. Furthermore, the Bulldogs rank first in the country in a slew of other categories including total defense (201.2 Y/G) and pass defense (137.0 Y/G), while leading the SEC in sacks (22), with an outrageous average of 18.2 hurries per game. To think that this unit was a bit of a question mark given that Smart had just four returning starters from the previous season, with ZERO starting experience at Cornerback. Instead, there is freakish talent to be found on all three levels of the Defense, from (Senior Edge-Rusher) Adam Anderson (19 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 4.5 SK, 1 PD) to (Junior Linebacker) Nakobe Dean (23 TKL, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 INT), to (hard-hitting Safeties) Lewis Cine (22 TKL, 1 INT, 5 PD) and Christopher Smith (10 TKL, 2 INT, 1 TD). Oh, and those young Corners have adapted quickly, for Kelee Ringo (8 TKL, 1 INT, 4 PD) and Latavious Brini (20 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 5 PD) look like they’ll be locking down opposing receivers for years to come. Though he came from Tuscaloosa, Smart doesn’t hit you with a lot of scheme, instead calling for his Defense to execute and make great decisions, which when coupled with a bevy of game-wreckers has led to the staggering results that have been on display thus far. Look for how they matchup with Kentucky’s effective ground game today, for few opponents have managed to gain much traction against them in this fashion thus far; fourth in the country against the run (64.2 Y/G), only one team has managed to surpass 100 rushing yards against them, and that was UAB (127 YDS) in a 56-7 drubbing. When these teams met in 2020, Smart’s troops were hit up for 138 yards on thirty-nine attempts, which was the second-highest total relinquished that year, though all but snuffed out the passing attack to the tune of a paltry ninety-one yards on 15-of-25 passing. In the end, the Wildcats could muster just 3.6 yards per play, and it’s going to take a lot better than that to beat these guys for just the thirteenth time in seventy-five meetings and snap an eleven-game losing streak which has seen only three encounters decided by fewer than ten points.