Kentucky football knows what it’s playing for against Georgia
If it is finally here and if you are a long-standing, long-suffering Kentucky football fan — emphasis on the suffering; oh, the suffering — then you are surely busy pinching yourself.
Come on, who are we kidding here. Let’s be real. You already sporting a football-sized welt from pinching yourself since the very moment C.J. Conrad clutched that two-yard touchdown pass from Terry Wilson with nothing but zeroes on the clock at Missouri to beat the Tigers and put your team in this wondrous position.
Let’s repeat it, just so you can hear it again: Kentucky plays Georgia on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Kroger Field for the right to represent the SEC East in the league’s championship game Dec. 1 in Atlanta.
So if Saturday is the day and the game Big Blue Nation thought it may never live to see, here’s the bottom line question: Can the Cats meet the moment?
Georgia has been here, done this. With a long tradition of conference titles (13) and a national championship (1980), the Bulldogs know their way around the big-game block. Just last season, Kirby Smart’s squad won the SEC title game and a wild and wooly Rose Bowl before losing in overtime to Alabama in the College Football Playoff final.
This Georgia may not be as good as that Georgia. (Don’t let cute little UGA the mascot hear us say that.) Still, the Dawgs are plenty good. They are 7-1 overall, 5-1 in the SEC. They are 8 1/2-point favorites. They are fresh off a 36-17 win over arch-rival Florida in which sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm performed like a seasoned senior. Their roster bursts with five-star talents against a team led by three-stars and below.
Yet, Kentucky is also 7-1 overall, 5-1 in the SEC. Mark Stoops’ team showed up at No. 9 in the first CFP rankings – Kentucky? Yes, Kentucky – behind a defense that could stop the sun from setting. Last Saturday at Mizzou, Missouri’s final eight possessions ended with three plays and a punt. Steeped in defensive strategy his entire coaching career, Stoops said afterward he had never seen anything like it. Then the coach went crowd-surfing in a jubilant locker room.
For that the jubilation to spread to Kroger Field early Saturday evening, a couple of things must happen. First, the Kentucky offense must make plays. Big plays. And that won’t be easy because (a) Georgia’s defense has some teeth of its own, and (b) UK has struggled to produce such plays.
Lynn Bowden made three at Missouri. The sophomore wide receiver reversed field and turned a flat pass into a 45-yard gain, caught a 43-yard deep ball and returned a punt 67 yards for a momentum-building touchdown. Saturday’s most important one-on-one battle will be Bowden matched up with Deandre Baker, Georgia’s shutdown cornerback who is likely the first defensive back taken in the 2019 NFL draft.
The Cats must also avoid calamities. These Bulldogs have feasted upon those. When a pass skipped off South Carolina running back Rico Dowdle, Baker returned the interception 55 yards. Fellow defensive back Tyson Campbell returned a Missouri fumble 64 yards for a touchdown. (Georgia also blocked a Mizzou punt for a TD.) Last Saturday, Florida’s first possession ended with Georgia’s Richard LeCounte returning a Gator fumble 32 yards to set up an early Georgia score.
Those things that can’t happen if Kentucky is going to extend the dream and win the program’s most important game since a young Bear Bryant walked the sidelines at old Stoll Field over a half-century ago.
There has been a lot of heartache between then and now – a history full of Charlie Bradshaw’s “Thin Thirty,” of John Ray’s 10 wins in four seasons, of NCAA probations and 73-7 road losses and crushing last-second defeats at home, and 40 seasons without a winning SEC record. Until this season.
So forgive Kentucky football fans for thinking this day and this moment might never come. Now that it has, however, they will enjoy it while dreaming one more dream: Their team seizes it.
No. 6 Georgia at No. 9 Kentucky
When: 3:30 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Georgia 7-1 (5-1 SEC), Kentucky 7-1 (5-1)
Series: Georgia leads 57-12-2
Last meeting: Georgia won 42-13 on Nov. 18, 2017, in Athens, Ga.
Line: Georgia is favored by 8 1/2 points