Lexington, Ky. – This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. The Kentucky game shouldn’t define Georgia’s season. The Kentucky game should be the one Georgia wins so it can get to the games that define its season.
But this is 2010, and 2010, as we know, has been different. Georgia won its opener. Then it lost four in a row, something no Georgia team under Mark Richt had ever done. Then the Bulldogs beat Tennessee and Vanderbilt by the total score of 84-14. And Saturday night brought the Big Blue, which was 4-3 to Georgia’s 3-4, but which — and this tells us something about the state of Kentucky football — entered as a five-point home underdog.
To its credit, Kentucky had done one thing Georgia couldn’t: It beat South Carolina, thereby thrusting the SEC East into disarray. It again became possible that the Bulldogs, who lost their first three conference games, could win the division. But first they had to beat Kentucky, and beating Kentucky keeps getting harder and harder.
The Bulldogs couldn’t manage it a year ago, losing to the Wildcats in Sanford Stadium for the first time since 1977. (The 1977 score was 33-0. Noted guests included both the Prince of Wales and the Godfather of Soul. Introduced by Vince Dooley to the former, the informal Kentucky coach Fran Curci uttered the immortal greeting: “Hey, Prince.”)
From 1977 through 1987, Georgia didn’t lose to Kentucky again. Then Dooley’s final team came here and got beat. Then Ray Goff’s second team came here and got beat. Then Jim Donnan’s first team came here and got beat. And those were the only blips: From 1974 through 2005, Georgia won 28 of 32 against UK.
Then the series changed: Rich Brooks’ Wildcats beat Richt’s Bulldogs here in 2006, prompting Kentucky fans to tear down one set of goalposts. (Why only the one set? Perhaps because even ‘Cat fans realized that UGA had lost four of its past five games.)
Ever since, the series has become a new and stirring thing. The best Georgia team of the past five years — the 2007 bunch that finished 11-2 and No. 2 in the land — was pressed to beat Kentucky in Athens. In 2008 Matthew Stafford hit A.J. Green with 1:54 remaining to give the Bulldogs a 42-38 lead, and Demarcus Dobbs made a leaping interception of Randall Cobb’s screen pass to seal the deal.
And last year Georgia lost at home after leading 20-6 at the half and 27-13 midway through the fourth quarter. That dealt the 2009 Bulldogs their fifth loss, the most any Richt team had suffered. (Unless this team wins the rest, it will match that.)
Doubtless feeling there were no more worlds to conquer — forget beating Tennessee; UK hasn’t done that since 1984 — Brooks stepped down after the season, leaving the coaching job to Joker Phillips, who was a Wildcats wide receiver and had been anointed coach-in-waiting. Until last week, Phillips had fallen into the Kentucky habit of gaining notoriety by coming close: Auburn needed a last-second field goal here two weeks ago to prevail.
But then the Joker took down the Evil Genius and his Gamecocks, and suddenly Saturday’s game bore the look of a match of near-equals. Which is something you wouldn’t have said about the Bulldogs and the Wildcats over their football history, something you wouldn’t have said about them in August 2010. But 2010 has, as we know, been different.
To make the most of its second wind, Georgia needed to beat the Wildcats in Commonwealth Stadium and head to Jacksonville likely favored over thrice-beaten Florida. And then, on Nov. 13, the Bulldogs go to Auburn. For those games to matter, this one had to be won. Handling Kentucky has seldom been a problem for UGA, but times, as we’re constantly learning, do change.
With that, the floor is open for comments, questions and nominations to succeed Richt. (That’s if Georgia loses. If it wins, forget I mentioned it.) I’ll be here all night, and I’d love your company. And I thank you, as always, in advance.