Georgia’s march to the SEC Championship game passed through Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, ending the Wildcats’ unlikely hopes in the process.
The No. 6-ranked Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1 SEC) played like the traditional football power they are expected to be in scoring the 34-17 victory over No. 9 Kentucky (7-2, 5-2) in a winner-take-all SEC East Division showdown.
Georgia sewed up a matchup with SEC West champion Alabama in the Dec. 1 conference championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Crimson Tide routed LSU 29-0 Saturday night. The Tigers beat the Bulldogs 36-16 on Oct. 13.
Georgia and Alabama met in the College Football Playoff national championship game last season and the Crimson Tide prevailed 26-23 in overtime.
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Georgia sophomore tailback D’Andre Swift exploded for a career-high 156 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries against Kentucky Saturday, including an 83-yard burst that made the score 28-3 halfway through the third quarter.
"I think people had started doubting us," Swift said. "We just tried to silence the critics."
The Wildcats entered the game allowing 13 points per game, tied for tops in the nation with Clemson.
The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns by halftime, up 14-3 — and it could have been more if not for two unforced turnovers in Kentucky territory.
The sellout Kroger Field crowd of 63,543 featured blotches of thousands of red-clad Georgia fans who made the trip to see the Bulldogs clinch their second consecutive SEC East Division title.
Georgia next plays host to Auburn (7-3, 4-3) on Saturday in Sanford Stadium. Home games follow against Massachusetts (3-6) and Georgia Tech (5-4) before the SEC Championship game.
The Wildcats had their sights set on what would have been their first trip to the SEC title game after rallying from a 14-3 halftime deficit for a 15-14 win at Missouri last week.
The Bulldogs quickly erased the notion of a repeat rally, opening the second half with a nine-play, 78-yard TD drive to make it 21-3, Elijah Holyfield landing the knockout punch with a 4-yard TD run at the 10:20 mark.
It was the first time this season an opponent had scored more than 20 points on Kentucky.
"They did a good job," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. "They moved us. They made us miss. There's a lot of things we could have done better, but a lot of that has to do with them."
The Bulldogs appeared on the verge of blowing open the game at the end of the first half before Jake Fromm (14-of-20 passing 113 yards, TD) and Swift botched an exchange at the Kentucky 27 with 15 seconds left in the half.
It was the second unforced fumble of the day. Georgia was up 7-0 and driving when freshman center Trey Hill rocketed a high snap that Fromm couldn’t get more than one hand on.
Hill replaced starting center Lamont Gaillard on the opening drive when the senior captain was forced from the action with what appeared to be a left knee injury.
Kentucky star linebacker Josh Wilson recovered the errant snap at the Wildcats’ 24, and Kentucky rode the momentum for a field goal on its ensuing drive to cut the lead to 7-3.
The Bulldogs opened the scoring on their first possession, cashing in on Mecole Hardman’s 65-yard punt return with a four-play, 23-yard drive capped by Isaac Nauta’s 4-yard touchdown reception from Fromm at the 10:37 mark.
Georgia’s trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium marks the first time since 2011 and 2012 that the Bulldogs have played in the SEC title game in back-to-back years. Georgia lost those games to LSU (42-10, 2011) and Alabama (32-28, 2012).
The defending SEC champion Bulldogs look to win back-to-back league titles for what would be the first time since 1980, 1981 and 1982, when Herschel Walker starred for the Bulldogs. Georgia won the SEC outright in 1980 and 1982 and split the league championship with Alabama in 1981.