Back in the day, when Georgia’s conference schedule always ended with Auburn, that meant when the Dogs won the SEC or the division they usually clinched it in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, which always seemed so fitting.
That’s not the way it works any more, though, and with South Carolina winning last week even Georgia’s superlative performance against the Tigers wasn’t enough to make it official. They have to do that this week in the somewhat less celebrated series (you can’t even really call it a rivalry) against the Kentucky Wildcats.
At least the high stakes nature of the game — beat Kentucky, win the SEC East — should keep Mark Richt’s Dogs from letting the whopping 30.5 point spread assigned to the game by the oddsmakers go to their heads in a post-Auburn letdown.
Back in the Top 15 no matter what poll you use, Georgia faces a team that ranks at or near the bottom of the conference in most offensive and defensive categories. In fact, the Cats are 118th out of 120 major college teams in total offense.
But playing the Wildcats usually isn’t as easy as it ought to be and they’ve won twice in the past five games, including the last time they visited Sanford Stadium, when Georgia suffered a complete second-half meltdown and went from leading 20-6 at halftime to a 34-27 loss thanks to four turnovers.
That’s actually about the only way I can see this year’s Dogs, who are a much better team than the 2009 version, losing to Kentucky: turning the ball over. Fortunately, since giving away the South Carolina game in that fashion earlier this season Georgia has improved remarkably in that aspect of the game.
And Kentucky (4-6, 1-5 SEC), which will be battling just to stay in contention to become bowl eligible, no longer has playmakers Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke and Mark Hartline. Their low-yielding offense is led by a freshman who replaced the original injured starter three games ago and they aren’t that good at protecting the quarterback, so Jarvis Jones may have a big day for the Dogs. And while the Cats’ defense has the SEC’s two leading tacklers, it’s pretty banged up and will be missing a couple of starters against Georgia.
Still, the memories of the last time the Cats were Between the Hedges remain painful.
I watched that awful 2009 game in one of the skyboxes with veteran Blawg commenter Cuz and his two daughters as part of their prize for winning an AJC ultimate fan photo contest. It was an interesting experience, but one neither of us is looking to relive.
Thankfully, as Cuz outlined to me this week, there are a lot of differences between then and now. Like Joe Cox vs. Aaron Murray. Willie Martinez vs. Todd Grantham. The Dogs being 6-4 and no chance of going to Atlanta vs. 8-2 and with the division title on the line. No mascot on the sidelines at that game vs. good ole Russ this time.
And, as Cuz said, other differences include “fan confidence, confidence in Richt, heck I even heard one or two nice comments about Bobo.”
One of the unfortunate comparisons is that Cuz’s daughter Baylie, who won the contest that put us in the skybox that night, won’t be at this year’s game. She’s heading to Minnesota for major surgery and I hope you all will join me in sending our prayers and thoughts along with her.
To try and get a fix on what folks in Kentucky are thinking about this game, I first asked Mark Provano, a big Dogs fan who lives in Louisville. His response: “I think most of the [Kentucky] fans have moved on to hoops. … The party line from the football staff is that they have to win their last two games to become bowl-eligible. I think they surely realize that’s a tall order, but on the other hand they can’t very well say they’re throwing in the towel. In addition to not being very good, they’re a little banged up right now. At least a couple of defensive starters are questionable for Saturday, and of course they’re playing a backup true freshman QB (who may actually be better than the regular starter; hard to tell). Still, they’ve played us fairly tough in recent years (including their last trip to Athens, painful to recall) so I think there’s some genuine hope they could pull an upset. And Joker Phillips surely knows he needs an upset or two to keep his job beyond next year, or even until next year. But, from my perspective, most UK fans are concerned about whether [basketball star] Terrence Jones has recovered from his auto accident.”
Then I put it to my favorite Atlanta Kentucky fan, Herb Steely, who could give Vince Dooley lessons in poor-mouthing. Herb’s take: “The game on Saturday will be an absolute disaster for the guys wearing Blue. I think my Cats will be lucky to stay within six touchdowns of your Dogs. We’re pathetic and that’s putting it mildly. I think Georgia is really becoming a powerhouse. I’m predicting they will beat LSU in the title game.”
But in true Wildcat fashion Herb adds, “Now basketball is a different story. We’re a very young team that should be playing well by tournament time. I look for Florida, Alabama and Mississippi State to be tough. And you guys will be much improved and in the hunt.”
Thanks, Herb. I don’t know about the “much improved” part with Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie gone on to the mothballed NBA, but I hope you’re right about everything. Especially about Saturday’s game.
Herschel Walker is profiled in the December issue of Playboy, on newsstands now, and the article is available in full online (and is safe for viewing at work). Written by my old UGA classmate, fellow Red & Black staffer and former AJC colleague Steve Oney, it’s a fascinating look at No. 34, from his current career in MMA to his years in pro football, his emotional battles and his career as a businessman. I like this passage, which shows Herschel’s sense of humor: “’Somebody told me we’re the largest minority-owned chicken company in the United States,’ he says, adding after a deadpan pause, ‘I don’t know if that means anything, as we may be the only minority-owned chicken company in the United States.’” Check it out. … If it’s Saturday, Scott Woerner must be somewhere in Athens signing copies of the “1980 Dawgs” DVD set. Sure enough, for the third straight week the Georgia defensive great will be meeting fans, this time back at the Red Zone store in downtown Athens, 155 E. Clayton St., from 9:30 to 11:45 a.m. before the Kentucky game and for two hours starting right after the game.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg