When Georgia and Kentucky square off Saturday afternoon on a cold Fall Saturday, it will be a matchup of two of the most physical teams in college football.
Head coaches Kirby Smart and Mark Stoops pride themselves on physicality at every level offensively, defensively and on special teams. Especially on the line of scrimmage.
Stoops first. With a famous first name, the brother of longtime highly successful Oklahoma legend Bob Stoops, has built Kentucky into one of the most stable programs in the Southeastern Conference. Operating in the shadow of regal Kentucky basketball, ripe with those eight national championships, the Wildcats football program has often been an afterthought. Both in the Southeastern Conference and within the Kentucky fan base.
But not under Stoops’ watch.
Yes, John Calipari and Big Blue are still king of the mountain. Stoops though has built a consistent winner. The steady growth and consistent success has made a mark in, yes, both the SEC and with the Wildcat faithful.
It started in 2013 with a record of 2-10. The next two years, the Wildcats went 5-7. Now that wouldn’t have cut it in Athens, Tuscaloosa or Baton Rouge or at Rupp Arena. But Kentucky was patient, and it has paid off. The SEC East’s longest tenured coach has led Kentucky to a bowl for six straight years, and this season will be the seventh postseason trip in a row for the Wildcats. The only losing season over that stretch came in the Covid 2020 campaign. The highlights have been a pair of 10-3 records in both 2018 and 2021. In the Stoops era, Kentucky has notched signature wins over Tennessee, Penn State and Iowa, while turning the tables against Florida. From 1987-2017, the Gators beat Kentucky an astonishing 31 times in a row. Some of those games, it was just incredible how they got away from Kentucky. But since 2018, Stoops has led Kentucky to three wins in the previous five meetings with Florida, including the last two in a row.
Now, if Kentucky can beat Georgia and in-state rival Louisville, the Wildcats would be bowling with a shot at another 9-4.
That would also end another streak.
Back in 2016, favorite Georgia son Kirby Smart recorded one of his first signature victories as the head coach at his alma mater. A last second Rodrigo Blankenship field goal delivered a 27-24 win in Lexington. That was a building block win for a program on the fast track under Smart’s watch.
Since 2017, the second year of the Smart era, Georgia has been one of the most dominant programs in college football. The Bulldogs won the SEC championship and played for the national title that year. Last season, Georgia won the National Championship. This year, the Bulldogs are heading to their fifth trip to the SEC Championship Game with a regular season record of 11-1 (2017, 2018, 2019) or better (2021).
Thinking back to some hard times daddy – cue The American Dream Dusty Rhodes – there was a stretch mainly covering the 1990s when Georgia lost nine straight times to Tennessee and went 1-11 against Florida teams coached by Steve Spurrier. For this spirited 50-year old scribe, from 1983-1990, the Bulldogs lost seven times in eight games against Auburn.
Well, Georgia has won five of the last six against the Gators, who are on their third head coach during that stretch. The Bulldogs have won six straight against Tennessee, which is on its third head coach over that period. And, dating back to the 2017 SEC Championship Game, Georgia has beaten Auburn, now on its third head coach of the Smart era, six times in a row. That’s strong stuff against the Bulldogs biggest SEC rivals.
For the record, Georgia is also 4-0 against the Yellow Jackets – outscoring “The Enemy” 180-35 – since 2017. There was no game between the in-state foes in 2020. The North Avenue Trade School is also on its third head coach of the Smart era.
Georgia has also won 12 straight against Kentucky, running the decade of the 2010s under Mark Richt and Smart.
While there has been such turnover amongst the Bulldogs old and ancient foes, Kentucky has been a constant since Stoops got his program going in Lexington.
He and Kentucky certainly look at beating Georgia before what promises to be an electric atmosphere at Commonwealth Stadium / Kroger Field.
Back in 1988, Kentucky upset Georgia in Lexington, derailing SEC title dreams in Vince Dooley’s final season as the Bulldogs head coach. I’d gladly trade one of the wins in a mediocre season during this current 12-game winning streak for that one in ‘88. It’s one of the most painful losses in Georgia history. The legendary Dooley told me once that one stood out perhaps more than any, because he would have loved to “go out … as a champion.”
So here are the Wildcats trying to play spoiler and derail the Dogs dreams of a second consecutive national championship.
While Kentucky dropped a bad one in a nooner against Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs, after back-to-back victories over the Gators and Volunteers, were in Starkville and now visit Lexington. Directly in the crosshairs.
What a test this will be for the Bulldogs.
Smart has implored his team all year to be the “hunter,” vowing that the reigning national champions would not be hunted.
And in what promises to be one of the most physical games of the year, the Bulldogs must pack their best punch and strongest chin.