Thursday, November 19

No sleep 'til Tampa: The Kentucky preview.

Location: Lexington, Kentucky.

Last season: Started 4-0 after blazing through a ridiculously cakey non-conference schedule, then got bitchmade as soon as conference play started, but beat Arkansas and Mississippi State by a point apiece to get to six wins and a Liberty Bowl invite. Completed the program's first-ever string of three straight bowl wins by upsetting East Carolina in Memphis, and finished at 7-6, 2-6 in the SEC.

This season: Second verse, same as the first. Crushed a non-con slate consisting of Miami-Ohio, Louisville, UL-Monroe, and Eastern Kentucky but have only won two league games (Auburn and Vandy); currently 6-4 (2-4 SEC) and unranked.

Hate index, 1 being homemade apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top, 10 being racism: Two. Had a great boss who was a UK alum and now one of my best friends is marrying one. Welcome to the fold, sir! Now that you're gettin' hitched to a rabid Georgia fan, you'll have something to do while you wait for basketball season to start.

Associated hottie: The badonkadonktastic Candace Cabrera attended the University of Kentucky and appeared on the third season of "Flavor of Love," but is now atoning for that by training to be a surgeon. I don't know if the tattoos on her leg are meant to be wildcat paws, but if they are that's about as good an advertisement for UK as there could be.

What excites me: Kentucky's offense, currently ranked 78th in the nation overall, has never quite gotten sorted this season. Running back Derrick Locke has put up some decent numbers this season, but his best performances have rarely come in big games; the passing game started slow behind QB Mike Hartline, struggled to find a replacement after he got hurt against South Carolina, and then seemed to be settling into a groove with freshman Morgan Newton, but even Newton had a lousy game against Vandy last week (4-of-7 for just 40 yards and a pick). Hartline briefly reappeared versus the Commodores but had season-ending knee surgery on Tuesday, so it looks like the keys are Newton's once again, but his only 100-yard passing games this season have come against Mississippi State and Eastern Kentucky. The Wildcat passing game as a whole has failed to crack 150 yards in four of their last five games, falling to 112th in the nation; it looks like our much-maligned secondary might finally get something approximating a break this week, because Kentucky's offense has been rendered about as one-dimensional as they come.

Kentucky is also banged up both sides of the ball, particularly on defense; we don't know yet what that's actually going to mean in terms of their guys starting or sitting on Saturday, but it sounds like the injuries have already taken a toll on their practice participation, and the Wildcats have come out to very slow starts in their last two games (only led EKU 17-6 at halftime; trailed Vandy by a field goal at the same point). Obviously they gathered themselves up to post much better performances in the second half, but I think it's safe to say Georgia isn't going to be worn down by depth issues the same way that EKU and Vandy were; God willing, we won't be trailing anyone 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, either.

Stop that, young man!

What worries me: Randall Cobb, Randall Cobb, Randall Cobb. Along with the rest of the Kentucky backfield, Cobb nearly killed us with option plays and first-down runs last year, and while he's had very little playing time at QB in '09, that doesn't make him any less dangerous. He's kind of like Kentucky's version of Dexter McCluster, and while his stats obviously haven't been as eye-popping as McCluster's, he's got a similar range of talents. He's Kentucky's leading receiver with 384 yards and four TDs, but we all know the passing game isn't where they make the majority of their progress; on the ground, he's also the Wildcats' second-leading rusher, averaging an eye-popping 6.9 yards per carry (and actually leading the team with seven rushing TDs). He's been such a dominant part of the offense that Kentucky's direct-snap formation has come to be called the "WildCobb" (which I guess beats "Wild Wildcat"). Just for good measure, he's also their holder on field-goal tries, which adds another opportunity for UK to bust out a game-breaking trick play on us. Three good quarters against Auburn do not mean we can all breathe a sigh of relief with respect to Willie Martinez's ability to scheme against a spread offense; I'm sure I won't be alone among the 92,700-some denizens of Sanford Stadium in biting my nails every time Cobb shows up under center.

For all the injuries they've suffered, Kentucky's defense, too, has held its own this year -- particularly against the pass, where they're ninth in the nation. Joe Cox eventually got his head screwed on straight against Auburn and hit them with some nice deep throws, but anyone who watched that game knows a couple of them were awfully lucky; he still finished the game just 9-of-17 for 173 yards, though he didn't throw an interception for just the second time all season, so maybe the kid's making progress. As with Auburn, though, he's not going to have A.J. Green to throw to, so once again guys like Israel Troupe and Orson Charles are going to have to step up to fill the void. Against the run, Kentucky is currently ranked 98th nationally, but that number's a little bit deceiving -- I'll get to that in a minute.

On special teams, Kentucky has a good kicker in Lones Seiber and has held their own on kick and punt returns (23.9 and 12.8 yards per return, respectively) -- and anyone who watched in horror as we rolled out a red carpet for Demond Washington's 99-yard kickoff return and let them right back into the game in the fourth quarter knows we haven't done a good job of defending either lately. Special-teams gaffes more than anything else were what allowed Kentucky to hang with us for the full four quarters last year, and there's no reason to assume we've made any meaningful progress toward fixing those issues.

"I'd like to thank Jon Fabris for this award . . . "

Finally, there's motivation. As much crap as I've given teams like, say, Ole Miss and California for not being able to put together good performances in back-to-back big games, the fact is Georgia hasn't been any better this season; will we look back at our bravura finish against Auburn, assume our problems are all solved, and turn complacent as we head into this less-pressure-packed game against a supposedly weaker opponent? With bowl eligibility already secured and placement in the pecking order basically all we're playing for at the moment, will we throttle back to an ultraconservative game plan that keeps Kentucky hot on our heels for 60 minutes? No way to tell until we kick off on Saturday.

Player who needs to step up: WLB Rennie Curran. Kentucky nearly murdered us with a practically option-esque ground attack last season in Lexington, and more than likely that'll be how they try to do it again. I think we'll be far better prepared to deal with it this time around, but if you watched any of Dexter McCluster's raping and pillaging of the injury-weakened Tennessee linebacking corps last week, you know just how much damage a player with that kind of skill set is prepared to do against a defense who isn't ready for him. It's going to be up to our linebacking corps to make sure Randall Cobb doesn't put up similar numbers, and Rennie (who, let me reiterate, came all the way from Liberia just to hit you) will be leading that effort.

What does it all mean? Three years ago around this time, Georgia was coming off a mid-season 1-4 slump that, if anything, was worse than what we've experienced this year (I mean, at least we clobbered Vandy this time around). At 6-4 and gasping for breath, we went down to Auburn, clobbered what was then the fifth-ranked team in the country (I still owe Tra Battle a steak dinner for those three picks), and gathered up enough momentum to finish the season on maybe the hottest three-game streak Mark Richt has been able to assemble as coach. I don't know that we're poised for an explosion of quite that same magnitude this time around, but I'm hopeful that dusting ourselves off and coming from behind to beat Auburn -- more importantly, avoiding the exasperating mental errors that put us in so much trouble against prior opponents -- will at least be enough to mitigate any issues over motivation this week.

We've still got to outplay the Wildcats, though, and this game is hardly a gimme. It's hard to get a bearing on how good the 'Cats are because of the generally weak schedule they've played, and while 6-4 record plus weak schedule generally equals "not really that good," they've busted out a couple big performances this season, hanging with South Carolina to the bitter end (back before the Gamecocks had gone into their usual late-season nosedive) and knocking off Auburn on the road. It would be a mistake to underestimate them, particularly with the wrinkles on offense they're likely to throw at us.

Randall Cobb FTW, just in case I haven't drilled this into your head enough.

When all is said and done, though, Georgia's still the team with the decided edge in talent, even with A.J. Green and Bacarri Rambo inactive for this game. As poorly as our defense has performed at times this season, run defense has rarely been a glaring issue -- we're up to third in the SEC and managed to hold Auburn's second-in-the-conference rushing attack to barely half its per-game average (38 rushes for 115 yards, or a mere three yards per carry). So at the very least, the key matchup when Kentucky's offense is on the field will be their strength vs. our strength. The big question mark, of course, is Cobb, but if our front seven can keep their heads on a swivel and at least contain him, they're likely to find that the Wildcats don't have a lot of other playmakers on that side of the ball.

As far as our offense goes, it won't quite be a mirror image, but the situations are similar -- our passing game is obviously a lot more useful than Kentucky's, but with Joe Cox still making some head-scratching throws and our running game finally starting to click, I would expect us to put together another heavily run-biased game plan similar to what we executed against Auburn. Mark Richt warned earlier this week that Kentucky's #98 ranking nationally in run defense was deceiving, as the vast majority of the yards they've given up on the ground have been to teams with spread offenses, and he's not wrong about that:

South Carolina331283.9
Mississippi St.453487.7
E. Kentucky321274.0

Clearly, any offense currently or recently coached by Dan Mullen is an outlier on that table, along with anyone boasting Gus Malzahn on their staff -- more than half the rushing yards Kentucky has allowed this season were given up to Florida, Auburn, and Mississippi State, all spreads or spread-like substances. But as Blutarsky points out, the teams that didn't do well against Kentucky generally have a common thread, too, and it is that they're . . . well, generally shitty offenses. (And the real scrub opponents like ULM and EKU almost assuredly had to go pass-heavy in the second half because Kentucky was pulling way ahead.) Alabama's decidedly non-spready running game managed to cross the two-century mark against UK, and while we're obviously not Alabama, we're certainly not Eastern Kentucky or Vanderbilt; either; with Washaun Ealey and Caleb King averaging nearly six yards a carry between them against Auburn, I think we'll put in a solid, if not necessarily mind-blowing, performance against the 'Cats.

How well we do in this game depends on two things: One, whether we can continue eliminating turnovers and penalties the way we did against Auburn, and two, whether we can contain Randall Cobb. I'm honestly not sure how well we'll do in either area. Penalties come down to mental preparation and focus, which, as I've explained earlier, could go either way at this point in the season; as for turnovers, I don't think we'll have as clean a game in that category as we did last week, since Kentucky is in the top 20 nationally with 13 passes picked off and Cox is still kind of a question mark (he probably should've had a couple passes picked off by the Tigers). The Wildcats have not had any kind of extraordinary luck in turnover margin (they're sitting at -1 on the year) and have tossed up 11 picks themselves, but given how conservative they're likely to be with the passing game on Saturday, I wouldn't expect to see many opportunities for picks come our way (not that we'd pick them off anyway); in the end, the trends don't bode well for a good day turnover-wise despite the Auburn game, so we probably ought to prepare ourselves for at least a couple giveaways that keep Kentucky in the game.

As for Cobb . . . who knows? Given the way we gathered ourselves up and clamped down on a generally very balanced Auburn spread last week, one would think we'd be able to do just as well, if not better, against a Kentucky attack that's been biased toward the run by a 2:1 margin over the last five games. (In fact, the only games in which the running plays have come close to passing plays have been against UL-Monroe and Eastern Kentucky, I guess because they figured they could afford to give Morgan Newton the extra passing practice; against the three SEC opponents they've faced during that span, they've favored the run by a nearly three-to-one margin.) Between Cobb's performance against us last year and Dexter McCluster's last week, though -- yeah, I know, Cobb isn't McCluster, just let me be pessimistic here, it's kind of my thing -- I can't help but steel myself for at least a couple big bursts by Cobb on Saturday night.

Now, we're still putting the greater assemblage of talent on the field, and our players have been saying all the right things about being motivated by the prospect of making it to a New Year's Day bowl despite all the turmoil this season. (Tampa or Shreveport: Wouldn't that motivate you?) With the Auburn win potentially having lit a spark under us, too, I think we'll win this weekend, I just don't expect Kentucky to make it easy for us. I think they'll be in the game all the way into the fourth quarter, at which point we get a clutch catch from one of our non-A.J. receivers and/or a big stop from the front seven to salt away a single-score victory.

After that, we can turn our guns on the nerds. Oh, can we ever.

If you're trash-talking: Between the historical strengths of the two programs and the lateness of the season, "Cheer up, basketball season's already started" is a good one. That actually makes you sound encouraging and friendly, though it does have the disadvantage of coming right back to bite you when Kentucky's basketball team inevitably waxes our asses up and down the court a couple months from now. In the unlikely event that you are called upon to verbally dress down a particularly uppity Wildcat, reminding them that they've barely beaten us one out of every six times they've played us should be more than sufficient.

Fear not, 'Cat fans; you'll always have hoops, which means you'll always have Ashley Judd.

I will run up and down the street in front of my house wearing nothing but a Georgia flag wrapped about my nether regions if: Georgia wins by at least three scores. From 2002 to 2005, we beat the Wildcats by 28, 20, 45, and 32 points; obviously Kentucky is quite a bit better than they were during that stretch, but those are still the kinds of blowouts we should be aspiring to. It'd also be only the third time all season we'd have beaten anyone by more than two TDs, and frankly, I could use the release.


dave clark said...

"That actually makes you sound encouraging and friendly, though it does have the disadvantage of coming right back to bite you when Kentucky's basketball team inevitably waxes our asses up and down the court a couple months from now."

FWIW, Georgia's beaten Kentucky in basketball the last three years. One of those was in the SEC tournament the year we won it (Kentucky's last SEC championship? 2004). The other ostensibly knocked the Kittens out of the running for the NCAA tournament last year.

In other words, UK can't really talk much smickety-smack on us in basketball these days. Not until they, you know, do something.

Farsider said...

What's the over/under on the tons of trash that Georgia tail-gating before Saturday's 7:45 kickoff will produce? If the line is at, say, 70 tons, my advice is to take the over.

heybaxley said...

Cobb is questionable for Saturday (Cobb is from Adam's hometown so we like him so very much!) as is Micah "Dear Lord Will You Look At The SIZE Of That Dude?!" Johnson who, for the record? BORN IN COLUMBUS, GA! (turf toe). He's just plain scary. I'd rather he just not get a shot at any of our players.
Also, I would like to discuss how today's Lexington Herald reported a story in Sports Illustrated that Kentucky fans are the third most polite SEC fans (ranked just above UGA) and I'm sure they believe that lie as much as they believe they are actual southerners. However, something I learned in moving from GA to KY is that "polite" means something way different here. I've been to games at Commonwealth and what happens when the fans get bored because they don't understand the rules of college football is band-booing, projectile-hurling douchebaggery that is at its NICEST "impolite" and would more accurately be described as "Gatoresque".
All that aside, I cheer for the Cats sometimes as UK does provide my bunny with a job and a paycheck and all. I love him, bless his heart, he escaped Maryville/Alcoa, TN having never once cheered for the Vols. But this week he better recognize. GO DAWGS!

ACG said...

I like the suggestion of that commenter on Bulldogs Blog: For Bacarri Rambo's first play back, everyone should start chanting, "Rambo! Rambo! Rambo!" so he knows what it feels like.

Ollllddude said...

I notice you are upping the ante on what it takes to do the towel run. It is colder this time of year, and hey, they don't cotton to that kind of stuff in Columbus like they might in Birmingham. But I still think you will be running.