Kentucky: Now a force to be reckoned with in milieus other than golden-fried crispy goodness.
What I said at the time: Appropriate fear was expressed at Kentucky's top-notch stable of skill players on offense . . .
Woodson has been heralded by nearly everyone as the SEC's most proven passer; RB Rafael Little is a threat to both run and catch; and the entire corps of receivers is blazingly fast. Everyone’s immediate knock on the Wildcat offense is that they weren't quite so prolific in '06 against defenses that actually had a pulse -- against Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and LSU, they came up with a total of 36 points -- but that can only come as so much relief to a defense as green as Georgia's is going to be.
. . . but proper respect was paid to Georgia's as well . . .
The good news, of course, is that if Matt Stafford has really advanced as a quarterback as much as we think he has, Georgia will virtually be able to name their score. Kentucky hasn't fielded a decent defense in more than a decade, and it's not gonna suddenly happen this year, not with a new coordinator having to sort out the disaster that last year's unit was. . . . I wouldn't necessarily bet money on Georgia hanging "half a hundred" on the 'Cats like we did in '02, but if Louisiana-Monroe could put 40 on them last year, then by God, we should be able to.
. . . not to mention UK superfan Ashley Judd, of course.
What's happened since then: A gangbuster three-week stretch by Georgia's offense has the Dawgs at #9 in the nation and 8-2, 5-2 in conference, though they're still not in control of their destiny with respect to the SEC title game. Kentucky, meanwhile, is already on the ropes after a stunning home upset to Gardner-Webb . . . whoops, wrong sport! In football, the 'Cats stunned pretty much everyone by starting off 6-1, but then got carpet-bombed by Florida and Mississippi State and just barely got off the schneid last week with a one-score victory over Vandy. At 7-3 (3-3), I think they've been mathematically eliminated from the SEC East race, but really, who can tell these days?
Care to amend your initial statement, sir?: Well, yeah, in the sense that I never would've dreamed the Wildcats would race out to a 6-1 start and knock off Louisville and LSU in the process. Putting aside any discussion of talent levels, Xs and Os, and coaching for a moment, you can definitely say one thing about the 'Cats: They no longer play like they expect to be conference doormats. They're not perfect, but their mental needle has swung dramatically toward the "find ways to win games" side of the meter after having spent years at "find ways to fuck them up"; penciling in "gimme win" next to their name on the schedule is absolutely an unwise idea, as more than a few Georgia fans discovered last year.
So let's dismiss any idea that this is going to be a blowout simply because Georgia wants revenge for last year. Gone are the days when anyone could enter this game counting on Kentucky to submit to their will and be content to lose by only three touchdowns; Rich Brooks and his team have bent several teams to their whims over the course of this season, and they've still got motivation to do so as long as pride and a New Year's bowl berth remain on the horizon.
Any talk of Kentucky's team has to begin with their offense, and any talk of that offense has to begin with André Woodson, the SEC's most productive and second most efficient passer. Part of Woodson's success comes from the fact that he throws the ball a lot, by SEC standards at least, with 199 passing attempts (compared to 178 rushes) over the past five games -- but that just means that our secondary is gonna have to do a lot of running around out there. And they're going to have to account for a lot of personnel: The Wildcats' roster currently boasts three receivers (Steve Johnson, Keenan Burton, and Dicky Lyons) with at least 40 catches and 500 yards on the season, and a fourth, SEC-leading tight end Jacob Tamme, who has 38 for 400. Plus RB Rafael Little, back after missing the Florida and Mississippi State games with an injury, is a potent threat in terms of catching the ball out of the backfield. This is already giving me acid flashbacks of the '06 Tennessee game, in which we went up against a passing game with a similarly well-stocked arsenal and saw the second half devolve into a neverending game of three-card monte in which our soft zone coverage found itself picking the wrong card time after time after time.
Follow the blue man, follow the blue man, follow the blue man . . . nope, you're wrong!
How do we stop this? Well, let's look at the three teams who've been able to hold the Wildcats below 30 points this season. South Carolina, UK's first loss of 2007, did it by grabbing three fumbles and an interception of Woodson; Mississippi State upset the 'Cats courtesy of a +5 turnover margin (three picks and three fumbles). In their close loss to UK, Vanderbilt was even with the Wildcats on turnover margin but did manage to sack Woodson three times. All of this is good news for Georgia, because we're starting to get pretty good at both sacks and forcing turnovers. After notching only nine sacks and four forced turnovers in our first six games, we've tallied 15 sacks and 12 turnovers just in our last four. (Senator Blutarsky has more on the turnover issue here.)
If we can't keep that going against Kentucky, then pretty much our only remaining option is to just outscore 'em -- but as you've no doubt noticed, we're getting quite a bit better at that, too. The Dawgs have now scored 40+ points in three straight games, which has only happened once in UGA history (the national-title-winning season of 1942); they stand a very good chance of running that streak to a fourth game this week, a feat which has not been achieved by any Bulldog team ever.
Kentucky's defense has improved over last year's, though if you caught any of the '06 team's games, you know that such improvement probably belongs in the "couldn't get much worse" category. Kentucky is 63rd in the nation in total defense, allowing 388 yards per game; they've gotten quite a bit better against the pass, improving from 118th in the nation at the end of last year to 19th as of right now, but their run defense is languishing at 97th in the country and 10th in the SEC -- they're actually allowing more yards per game rushing (197.3) than passing (190.7). So, Knowshon, how does a fifth straight 100-yard game sound? And while the pass defense isn't allowing too much progress through the air, they're not making opposing quarterbacks pay too much for it, either -- only 10 passes intercepted in 10 games (with seven of those picks coming against their somewhat-less-than-juggernautty OOC slate of Eastern Kentucky, Kent State, Louisville, and Florida Atlantic).
That's right, Golden Flashes, suck it! Suck it hard!
So on paper, this looks like a prime opportunity to once again light up the scoreboard and walk out with a stirring win -- and yet the curmudgeon in me still feels his stomach churning. For one thing, this is an obvious letdown opportunity after the big win on Blackout Saturday; even with our shot at an SEC title still very much on the line, I don't know how we're supposed to match the eagerness and intensity of that game. Think back, too, to the Troy game, which also followed a much-talked-about streak-breaking win, and ask yourself if you really want to get caught in that same kind of shootout, only this time against André Woodson and Rafael Little. Yeah, we've got the revenge factor motivating us in this one, but that hardly worked against Tennessee, nor was it enough to keep us out of a nailbiter against Vanderbilt.
However, those two games took place before the emergence of what Georgia fans have begun calling Evil Richt. At some point this season, Richt had some kind of epiphany with respect to strategies for motivating the team, and we've been playing lights-out, particularly on offense, ever since. Good thing, too, because there's no margin for coming out flat in this one. As with Troy, we need to stay not one but two steps ahead of Kentucky on the scoreboard at all times; anything less than a blazingly fast start, and the 'Cats are more than capable of making us regret it.
So given that our greatest success against Auburn's (supposedly far stronger) defense came when Bobo opened up the passing attack and gave Stafford the green light to launch 'em downfield, I'd expect us to try a few deep balls early; Sean Bailey and Mohamed Massaquoi have proven themselves quite capable of catching them. Once we've got their defense good and softened up, we can run Moreno and Brown at them with a vengeance; if we have any kind of lead going into the final quarter, those two should really be able to wear down Kentucky's unspectacular front seven.
And that applies regardless of jersey color.
Any lead we do acquire, though, is likely to remain modest -- and potentially short-lived, if our guys don't come out fired up and if we don't tackle better than we did during the middle of the Auburn game when the Tigers were dropping 17 straight points on us. This isn't automatically destined to be one of those last-team-with-the-ball-wins kinds of games, but Kentucky is going to put some points on the board one way or another, and for the defenses who have to square off against them, it is a fine line indeed between "contained" and "permitted to go hog-wild." That's a line we should expect to have to walk for the full 60 minutes; I think we'll win, maybe by as much as a touchdown, but no more. If you're hoping for anything more than a push with the 8-point spread, good luck.
Then again, I thought for sure we'd lose to Auburn, so what the hell do I know?
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia breaks the 40-point barrier for a program-record fourth straight week -- in a winning effort, of course. Seriously, if we can do it against Auburn, we should be able to do it against Kentucky, no? And I'm not even going to make any desperate pleas regarding Tennessee, either. Yeah, it would kind of be a bummer if we finished the season on such a strong note and still had to sit at home and watch the SEC championship on TV, but if the Dawgs just take care of biznass in their final two games, they will finish the regular season 10-2 and almost certainly in the top seven of the BCS standings (as at least two of the Kansas/Oklahoma/Mizzou trifecta at the 3-4-5 spots are destined to lose between now and December 1), and would be a very enticing pick for an at-large BCS bid. So don't worry about the Vols, guys -- just win your last two games, and you're going to be taken care of.