Mark Story

Is it time for Kentucky fans to start ‘scoreboard watching’ Georgia?

Even though the venue now known as Kroger Field opened on the University of Kentucky campus in 1973, there is not an obvious answer to a basic question:

What is the biggest UK football game ever played in the facility formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium?

The greatest Kentucky victory in the stadium came in 2007, when Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton, Wesley Woodyard and Co. upset No. 1 LSU 43-37 in three overtimes.

That epic victory led the following week to the most nationally-hyped game ever played in the stadium. ESPN’s College GameDay came to Lexington to promote that 2007 game between No. 8 Kentucky and No. 14 Florida and the quarterback duel between Woodson and Tim Tebow.

Florida’s victory in a 45-37 shootout lived up to the pregame billing.

However, if you evaluate “big game” in terms of the outcome’s ultimate impact on a Kentucky season, the most consequential contest ever played in the former Commonwealth Stadium was UK’s 21-17 come-from-behind victory over Tennessee in the final game of 1977.

That victory allowed Art Still, Derrick Ramsey, Fran Curci and crew to wrap up a 10-1 record and an undefeated 6-0 SEC record (that did not yield a league championship because UK was on NCAA probation).

Yet all of those games will be eclipsed this Nov. 3 — if the scheduled Kroger Field matchup between No. 13 Kentucky (5-0, 3-0 SEC) and No. 2 Georgia (5-0, 3-0) turns out to be for first place in the SEC East.

Since the SEC split into divisions starting in 1992, Kentucky has never played a late-season game with credible championship ramifications.

So while Mark Stoops will correctly emphasize the importance of UK players staying in the moment and not looking ahead, Wildcats backers should embrace the full experience of a “pennant race” and start scoreboard watching Georgia.

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If you assume that Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs will come to Lexington undefeated, then UK must win two of its next three SEC games to ensure that its meeting with Georgia will be for first place in the East.

Even if UK drops one conference game before Nov. 3, it would control its own destiny in a match up against an unbeaten Georgia. That is because the first two-team tiebreaker in SEC division races is head-to-head competition.

If you are looking for Bulldogs vulnerabilities, they are not abundant.

Georgia has won all five of its games so far this season by at least 14 points. The Bulldogs have scored over 40 points in four of five victories. The one time they didn’t, they put 38 on Tennessee in a 26-point victory.

Kirby Smart.JPG
Coach Kirby Smart’s No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs (5-0, 3-0 SEC) have won all their games by at least 14 points so far in 2018. John Bazemore AP

The Dawgs did give up 172 yards rushing in a 43-29 victory at Missouri. Maybe that was because Georgia entered that game focused on limiting Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock’s aerial show.

Or maybe Georgia would be at some risk in a road game against a team built around a physical rushing attack.

Smart and the Bulldogs are trying to navigate the tricky dynamic of using two quarterbacks. Sophomore Jake Fromm took Georgia into overtime of the national title game in 2017. This fall, he’s sharing snaps with lavishly-hyped true freshman Justin Fields.

Urban Meyer made that two-QB system work in 2007 with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow en route to a Florida national title. But trying to play two QBs can also get real complicated real fast.

On paper, Georgia’s five remaining SEC games look more daunting than Kentucky’s.

The Bulldogs play Vanderbilt (3-2, 0-1 SEC) this week in Athens, followed by a challenging road trip to Baton Rouge to face No. 5 LSU (5-0, 2-0). After an open date, Georgia will play No. 22 Florida (4-1, 2-1) in the annual neutral site game at Jacksonville.

Following their trip to Lexington, the Dawgs will close out their SEC schedule with another marquee matchup against No. 8 Auburn (4-1, 1-1).

As for Kentucky, starting this Saturday at Texas A&M (3-2, 1-1), the Wildcats have three SEC road games left. After an open date, UK will play host to Vandy on Oct. 20, followed by a visit to Missouri (3-1, 0-1).

The week after Georgia visits Kroger Field, Kentucky will close out its SEC slate with a trip to struggling Tennessee (2-3, 0-2), loser of 11 straight Southeastern Conference games.

As The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan knows from unhappy experience, nothing is ever certain for Kentucky.

Still, Stoops and the 2018 Cats have done enough already to put Wildcats backers in position to do some legitimate scoreboard watching of Georgia these next few weeks.

You should fully embrace and enjoy that opportunity while it is here.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

Saturday

No. 13 Kentucky at Texas A&M

7 p.m. (ESPN)

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