[caption id="attachment_321214" align="aligncenter" width="1476"] (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
We are halfway through the 2020 season and after five SEC games, Kentucky is sitting at 2-3 and finds itself at a major crossroads. The Wildcats dropped a dud in Columbia as they lost to a Missouri team in their worst performance of the season. The offense looked disgusting while the defense could not get off the field on third down and now the Wildcats have a ton of tough games to manage through to end the season.
This week we got some depth chart shuffling and recent comments by Mark Stoops make it sound like UK is going to go back to heavy, heavy amount of establishing the run. It certainly feels like UK is still attempting to find its offensive identity after playing 20 quarters and an overtime possession. Now they welcome Kirby Smart's Georgia Bulldogs to town who are fresh off a loss followed by a bye week with the large Cocktail Party matchup looming with Florida next week.
There's no time for another hangover, Kentucky must tighten up their chinstrap and get their focus back right now. It's time to dig into what many are calling the most talented roster in college football and what may be the best defense we've seen in the last decade. This meat grinder of a season continues to move forward.
Nuts and Bolts
Despite ranking 12th among all blue blood programs in all-time winning percentage and owning 13 SEC titles, the Bulldogs have won just two national titles and haven't brought home the hardware since 1980. After Mark Richt won 74% of his games in 15 seasons with seven top 10 finishes, the school decided it was time to move on as the former Florida State offensive coordinator just could not get the Dawgs over the hump. They immediately targeted their most famous alum in the coaching ranks.
Kirby Smart had served as Nick Saban's ace assistant at Alabama for nine seasons as he became the most popular assistant coach in college football. After winning the national championship in 2015, it felt like time to leave and the alma mater would pick him up before South Carolina could make a real pitch. After an 8-5 season in year one, the Bulldogs are 39-8 with three SEC East titles and a runner-up finish in 2017. Smart is the best recruiter in college football and he has stacked the roster with dudes very quickly. However, UGA hasn't joined the spread bonanza on offense and that appears to be the only thing holding this program back from Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State.
The Bulldogs again have national championship expectations in 2020, but they are breaking in a ton of new coaches on offense while Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out
before the season was a pretty big gut-punch for the program. It seems like USC transfer JT Daniels is still recovering from a torn ACL and that has left former walk-on and junior college player Stetson Bennett IV running the show behind center. You add that with a ton of youth at the skill positions combined with a re-tooling offensive line and UGA may be one year away from truly competing for a national championship.
This will be the 74th meeting between the two programs and UGA owns a commanding 59-12-2 lead. The red and black have won 10 straight in the series with UK's last victory occurring in 2009. Kentucky hasn't beat Georgia in Lexington since 2006 when Andre Woodson upset true freshman Matthew Stafford on a November Saturday afternoon. UGA remains the only divisional opponent Mark Stoops has yet to defeat.
Out in the desert, Georgia is a 15-point favorite with a total of 42.5. That's a projected final score around 29-14. UGA is 2-2 ATS this season with both losses occurring on the road. UK is 2-3 and is set to be a double-digit dog for the first time this year. Since 2016, UK has been very plucky when unranked and facing a ranked foe. The Wildcats are 7-1-1 ATS in those matchups with three upset wins. This is a spot they usually perform well in.
Georgia is now on their third offensive coordinator in three seasons as Kirby Smart brought NFL assistant Todd Monken back to the college game. The former head coach at Southern Miss was tasked with helping modernize this Georgia offense so they could compete with the elites. In his first test, the Bulldogs failed.
UGA did not have the ammo to keep up with Alabama in Tuscaloosa as they were shutout in the second half of a 41-24 loss. This is a unit that ranks in the middle of the pack in the SEC in nearly every offensive category. These are not the numbers of a legitimate national championship contender.
The Dawgs have struggled to run the football and that has been a bit of a surprise. This is a group that lost offensive line coach Sam Pittman to Arkansas in addition to three starters to the NFL and Cade Mays to a graduate transfer. They had a lot of rebuilding to do and had some shuffling going on early in the season. This is a unit going through growing pains and it is showing up in the ground game as they are averaging under four yards per carry as a team.
Redshirt sophomore Zamir White (No. 3) is this team's workhorse back and the former five-star recruit is posting just 4.16 yards per rush and has a stuff rate of 15.62%. That is very big for a high volume back that isn't producing many chunk plays. His success rate is solid at 51.56%, but havoc can be produced against this group in the run game. True freshman Kendall Milton (No. 22) has a ton of potential and he may be the most dangerous runner in the group of 4-5 backs that will see snaps.
On the perimeter, slot receiver Kearis Jackson (No. 10) has emerged as the top target in the passing game through four games. The redshirt sophomore leads this offense in targets, receptions, yards and chunk plays. He has quickly became his new quarterback's favorite target and is posting a 52.94% success rate. Nearly all of his receptions end up being a splash play with a big play rate of 32.35%. Expect the former top-150 recruit to be heavily involved on Saturday after being shutdown by Alabama last week. When they go deep it's going to Jackson.
Expectations were very high for sophomore George Pickens (No. 1) as the five-star recruit led the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last season. However, he's been in a bit of a sophomore slump but broke out for five receptions against Alabama. Pickens has just a 59.09% catch rate and 45.45% success rate this season as the Dawgs really need more from their star X receiver. Monken loves to get the running backs and tight ends involved in the passing game as this group has combined to record 23 receptions.
Stetson Bennett IV (No. 13) will be making his fourth career start at Kroger Field on Saturday and he has filled in admirably. The former walk-on is completing over 57% of his throws while averaging just south of eight yards per attempt and avoiding sacks a pretty good clip. However, his passing success rate is under 50% and ranks near the bottom of the SEC. He is limited as a thrower, but has been able to hit on a few deep shots.
Bennett has enough arm to stretch the field on fades, but he can struggle to really drive the football on deep posts and crossers down the middle. He doesn't like attacking outside the numbers unless there is a clear one-on-one matchup he feels confident in. He wants to spray the ball across the middle 12 yards and in. However, this has led to a ton of pass break-ups as over 18% of his throws have been touched by opposing defenders. The tip drill used in practice could come in handy for UK in their zone coverage drops.
When scoring opportunities present themselves, this offense has been really bad. UGA is only putting up 3.89 points per scoring opportunity and can struggle to finish red zone possessions with touchdowns. Now they are set to go up against a Kentucky defense that is allowing just 1.8 points per scoring opportunity in their last three games. It could be very tough for UGA to score against Kentucky if this holds true.
It certainly does seem like UGA is re-tooling and trying to find itself on offense, but that couldn't be further from the truth on defense. Under second year coordinator Dan Lanning, the Bulldogs have depth, size, speed, talent and experience. This is the best defense in college football and they can make life miserable for you if you cannot stretch the field vertically.
It all starts with the linebacking corps in this 3-4 scheme and they rely heavily on their EDGE players to produce havoc. To say they've accomplished that this season would be the understatement of the century. Georgia is giving up a rushing success rate of just 34.57% when facing traditional run game while also having a 41.61% quarterback pressure rate on passing situations. They are stopping the run and then getting in your quarterback's face.
Azeez Ojulari (No. 13) might be the frontrunner for SEC defensive player of the year honors as he's stuffing the stat sheet with three sacks, nine QB hurries, two forced fumbles but it's not just him. UGA gets production from all of its EDGE defenders while they are a legit four-deep at inside linebacker. This group is absolutely loaded.
It doesn't stop there as Jordan Davis might be the best nose tackle in college football while Malik Herring has played a lot of football among the interior defensive line. This group has two five-stars in Jalen Carter (No. 88) and Travon Walker (No. 44) who cannot even crack the starting lineup. In the secondary, UGA has speed for days as Richard LeCounte (No. 2) is one of the best safeties playing right now and the corner duo of Tyson Campbell (No. 3) and Eric Stokes (No. 27) is as good as anyone's. Mark Webb (No. 23) and Tyrique Stevenson (No. 7) both platoon at the nickel spot while Lewis Cine (No. 16) is a heat seeking missile at the other safety. They are loaded.
This is a defense that is littered with blue-chippers everywhere. You will see 11 former top-100 recruits play significant snaps for this defense in addition to a bunch of other four-star players. Davis and Stokes are the only three-stars in the rotation and they happen to just be two of this defense's better players. When you recruit like gangbusters in addition to hitting it big with your few three-stars you are able to construct the best defense in college football.
Depth, speed, size, experience, talent. This Georgia defense has it all as Eddie Gran's offense will have its work cut out for them.
Special Teams Breakdown
Max Duffy was the unquestioned best punter in college football last season, but he is not the player who leads the SEC in punting average. Jake Camarda is averaging over 50 yards per attempt and with a net average over 47 yards. He's really good. At placekicker, Jake Podlesny has been very effective in his first season hitting 8 of his 10 attempts with two makes from outside 50 yards. However, he has a touchback rate of under 60% as the Dawgs prefer to cover kicks to help swing field position.
In the return game, running back Kenny McIntosh leads the SEC in kickoff return average putting up over 36 yards per attempt. He's not going to fair catch anything. Meanwhile, UGA uses its most dynamic skill player on punt returns but Kearis Jackson has been unable to make anything happen yet. This is one of the best special teams groups in college football.
Kentucky must be very careful in the third phase.
Keys to Victory
- There's no hiding from what Georgia wants to do. They have a plethora of talented tailbacks and an offensive line full of blue-chippers. Kirby Smart wants to run the ball and play defense while slowing suffocating you over 60 minutes. The last three seasons they have bludgeoned UK with their rushing attack with both Nick Chubb and D'Andre Swift running wild. UK can't let that happen this season. The Wildcats need to stuff this UGA ground game that has had some issues this season. UK has been very strong defending traditional run game and it must continue on Saturday. UK needs to create some havoc to force UGA into some early passing downs.
- Meanwhile, UK is set to go up against the best run defense in college football. The Dawgs smother you at the line of scrimmage and want to force you to go to the pass as early as possible. However, Smart's defenses at both Alabama and Georgia have add issues when dealing with the quarterback run. It's likely Joey Gatewood will get close to 15 carries on Saturday and he needs to make them impactful. Can Eddie Gran scheme something up? Will Gatewood be able to turn negative plays into chunk yardage? They'll need production in this area if they have any shot at consistently moving the football.
- Both punters is this matchup are very good at their jobs. Jake Camarda and Max Duffy might just be the top two candidates for the Ray Guy award and each is a major field position weapon. This game could come down to who is able to find the hidden yardage advantage in the punting game. Getting a couple first downs and punting will be a win for both teams throughout the ballgame. It'd be a good time to see a couple bombs down inside the 10 from Duffy. Punt to win will be alive and well at Kroger Field.
- Stetson Bennett IV is not afraid to throw the ball into traffic. UK's run defense should be able to cause some havoc against this Georgia run game. There will be some batted balls and fumbles that hit the deck. Kentucky must find a way to create multiple takeaways to steal possessions in a game that likely won't have too many.
- Points per scoring opportunity!!! I've talked about it all season, but Kentucky's defense has been one of the best units in the country at getting stops when scoring chances arrive. Meanwhile, UGA is putting up just 3.89 points per trip. This is not good. Kentucky needs to take advantage in this area and get stops when the Dawgs have scoring chances. Meanwhile, can UK cash in when scoring chances arrive on offense?
- The passing game has taken up a lot of talk this week, but facts are facts. UK's wide receiving corps just aren't very good right now and asking a lot of them would be forcing a square peg into a round hole. However, you have to manufacture something in the pass game. Can UK's staff scheme something open for their young quarterback? Getting Gatewood 12-15 completions would go along way not only for the game, but for the rest of the year.