Before the football was kicked off to open the 2018 season, I don’t think anyone, anywhere, could have envisioned it coming down to the Georgia Bulldogs and Kentucky Wildcats for the SEC Eastern Division championship.
I know I didn’t. Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs, of course, were predicted to win the East once again and thereby earn a second consecutive trip to the conference title game in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But Kentucky … no way!
Maybe South Carolina, maybe Florida …. either the Gamecocks or Gators could have possibly made a run in the division if the defending SEC champion Bulldogs were to fall flat on their face.
But that basketball school in Lexington, Ky.? Coach Mark Stoops’ football team was picked to finish down in fifth place in the seven-team East Division, behind Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Missouri, and only ahead of Tennessee and Vanderbilt. And some forecasts I saw deposited the Wildcats in the No. 6 spot, right above cellar-dweller Vandy.
But I guess the UK players and coaching staff didn’t exactly subscribe to their lowly preseason projection because here they are, heading into Saturday’s momentous battle against Georgia with the same 7-1 season and 5-1 SEC records as the East favorite Bulldogs. And knock off the University of Georgia and the Kentucky Wildcats will continue their Cinderella ride in 2018 right into the Dec. 1 conference championship game in the ATL.
How has Kentucky done it? How have the Big Blue ‘Cats defied all the so-called experts to now set the stage for arguably the biggest football game in UK history to date?
I’ll tell you how they’ve done it: The Wildcats have done it with one of the stingiest defenses in America, one that leads the NCAA FBS (tied with Clemson) in scoring defense by giving up only 13 points a ballgame. In outside linebacker Josh Allen, a 6-5, 250-pound future NFL top round draft choice, they have a disruptor of offenses who ranks at the top of the SEC in sacks and tackles-for-loss. Also with an All-SEC performer in the secondary in Mike Edwards, Kentucky hasn’t allowed anyone to score more than 20 points this entire season and I had to shake my head when I learned the ‘Cat defense held the Missouri offense and prolific passer Drew Lock without a first down in the entire second half of this past weekend’s game.
And Kentucky has done it with an offense that features also one of the nation’s best in junior tailback Benny Snell, a 223-pound bulldozer of a running back who enables the Wildcat offense to go on long scoring drives and eat up the clock while they’re doing it. Kentucky also boasts a quarterback in junior college transfer Terry Wilson who can pull the ball out of Snell’s stomach and run for big yardage himself. And although Wilson had picked up the reputation of being a shaky passing quarterback, he kind of proved that isn’t the case this past Saturday in Columbia, Mo. when Wilson threw for 267 yards (22-of-31 completions) and the winning touchdown on the game’s final play, in the process rallying the Wildcats from a 14-3 deficit to a stirring 15-14 win over the Missouri Tigers.
Not only will the 6th-ranked Bulldogs be going against a sky-high 9th-ranked (in first CFP rankings) bunch of Wildcats come Saturday at the 3:30 p.m. kickoff on CBS, they will also have to tune out a raucous, energized and highly-emotional Big Blue Nation fan base, one that is sure to have Kroger Field at Commonwealth Stadium rocking from kickoff to the final whistle in anticipation of their Cats earning their first-ever trip to the SEC championship game. Indeed, a UK fan base that has put the Wildcats’ huge basketball opener against Duke next week on the backburner at the moment because of the significance of this possibly historic football game.
But, thing is, with all this hoopla going on in the bluegrass this week, I’m looking for Georgia to snap the Wildcat team and its fans back to reality as the sun begins to set Saturday evening in Lexington. For one thing, Kentucky hasn’t faced a football team this season that boasts the Bulldogs’ talent and depth. With so much at stake and Georgia coming off the 36-17 momentum-building win in Jacksonville I, for one, would be shocked if Smart and his staff don’t have this team ready to stymie off the UK upset bid on Saturday.
I look for Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift to pound the highly-touted Cat defense on the ground — in the same manner they did against Florida this past Saturday — and I look for Jake Fromm to continue the pin-point accuracy he displayed against the Gators, passing to Jeremiah Holloman, Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman, Terry Godwin and Isaac Nauta to keep the chains moving. I also look for a motivated Bulldog defensive unit to slow Snell and Wilson just enough to prevent the Wildcats from running up big numbers offensively.
I can’t see this game being a high-scoring one, that is, unless Georgia plays up to its full ability, plays its most complete game of the season and goes on to blow Kentucky out of its own stadium. That’s a big IF so I’ll call it Bulldogs 24, Wildcats 17, in a true dog-and-cat fight that goes into the fourth quarter before the outcome is determined.