5 things to know ahead of Georgia-Kentucky on Saturday

ATHENS — No. 1 Georgia enters Saturday’s game at Kentucky as a 22.5-point favorite. But if it holds up, that will be an exception to recent history in this series.

While Georgia has won 12 in a row over the Wildcats, it never seems to be an easy proposition. The last time they played at Kroger Field, the Bulldogs eked out a 14-3 win. Georgia won 30-13 last year in Athens, but that was a 14-7 game at halftime, and the Wildcats used almost the entirety of the fourth quarter to execute a 22-play touchdown drive that ended with only four seconds left to play.

Kentucky has covered the spread each of the past three meetings.

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But all year, Georgia fans have circled this game as the one that would decide the SEC’s Eastern Division. Accordingly, a huge red-and-black-clad contingent is expected to be on hand for Saturday’s game (3:30 p.m., CBS).

“I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing in front of all those fans like that,” Georgia senior running back Kenny McIntosh said. “Georgia fans, for them to be able to travel to wherever we go, it’s crazy.”

Here are five other things to be aware of for the Bulldogs’ SEC finale:

1. Colder than Starkville

Last weekend when the Bulldogs played Mississippi State in Starkville, the temperature fell to about 30 degrees at the end of Georgia’s 45-19 win, with temperatures feeling colder than that thanks to the wind-chill factor.

The Bulldogs can expect similar conditions in Lexington this weekend. The high Saturday is forecast to be 37, with overnight lows to dip into the teens. So fans are encouraged to bundle up.

As for the team, Georgia obviously did a good job managing that last weekend in bringing home the 26-point victory. Coach Kirby Smart is not planning to do anything different.

“Players (have) their tights. They’ve got their leggings, a different wardrobe they can wear,” he said. “But outside of that, there’s not a lot you can do.”

LSU coach Brian Kelly might beg to differ. LSU’s nutritionists convinced Kelly to let them serve the players chicken soup during their game played in the 30s on Saturday in Fayetteville, Ark. It must’ve worked as the Tigers eked out a 13-10 win.

Smart said the Bulldogs don’t plan that strategy.

“Usually, you get good outcomes when you focus on the task at hand and not the things you can’t control,” he said.

McIntosh said the Bulldogs learned some lessons from Saturday’s experience. “Yeah, stay in front of the heater,” he cracked.

2. Tough D

While it has been a horrible season for Kentucky, one thing it has continued to do well is play defense. In fact, the Wildcats’ defense will be the best Georgia has seen all season.

Kentucky ranks 17th nationally in total defense at 317 yards per game, and it is giving up only 20 points per game, which ranks third in the SEC and 21st nationally. And the Wildcats rank second in the league against the pass, giving up only 182 yards per game.

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But Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White poured profuse praise on the Bulldogs’ offense this week, particularly sixth-year quarterback Stetson Bennett. Bennett ranks second in the SEC in passing yards per game (289.5), and the Bulldogs are second in scoring (40.6 ppg) and total offense (509.6 ypg). Bennett enters the game 24-3 as Georgia’s starter.

“Facing Bennett in college is kind of like facing (Tom) Brady in the NFL in that he’s seen so much,” White said this week. “He’s got so much experience. We’ve got to try to find a way to give him something he hasn’t seen. He’s the best QB, probably, we’ve faced all year, no disrespect to anyone else.”

Kentucky has played Tennessee and Hendon Hooker. The Volunteers won 44-6 in Knoxville, with Hooker completing 19 of 25 passes for 245 yards and three TDs. He ran for another TD.

3. Cats struggling on offense

Besides the Wildcats’ overall record, the next biggest surprise for Kentucky this season has been its offensive struggles. The optimism for the Wildcats this summer stemmed largely from the presence of quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez, both seniors.

Individually, they’re each doing a decent job. Rodriguez leads the SEC with a 122 yards per-game rushing average, and Levis ranks third in pass efficiency (153.57), less than a point ahead of Bennett. The issue, though, has been a young receiving corps that has struggled to get open and a balky offensive line.

Kentucky quarterbacks – and mostly Levis – have been sacked 39 times. Not only is that last in the SEC, but it’s the most allowed in FBS through 10 games since 1999.

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4. Looking ahead

While Smart and the Bulldogs are adamant about staying in the moment and not looking ahead, Georgia’s fans need to have their eyes cast forward.

Regardless of what happens Saturday, the Bulldogs are going to represent the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship game Dec. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There, Georgia will meet LSU (8-2, 6-1), which clinched the berth from the West with Saturday’s win over Arkansas and the Ole Miss loss to Alabama.

Most of the tickets to that game are in the process of being distributed. However, the bigger issue for UGA fans might be getting into the Benz for a College Football Playoff semifinal Dec. 31.

Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl organizers fully expect Georgia to be in their game if it wins out. The Bulldogs should, as they are multiple-touchdown favorites in their next three games.

Should that come to pass, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl appearance would mark the first time UGA will have played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium three times in the same season. The Bulldogs opened the season there in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game Sept. 3, defeating then-No. 11 Oregon 49-3.

Georgia has played in Atlanta – and the Benz – a lot. The Kickoff appearance represented the Bulldogs’ sixth consecutive year in the Falcons’ home stadium and the seventh consecutive year playing in Atlanta. Georgia opened the Smart era playing North Carolina in the old Georgia Dome to open the 2016 season. That building was razed the next year.

As for the Peach Bowl, the Bulldogs have played in it six times, second only to their 11 Sugar Bowl appearances. However, this is the first time they would be inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium as a national semifinalist. Georgia played Alabama there in the 2017 CFP Championship game Jan. 8, 2018.

It will be the Bulldogs’ fifth matchup against LSU in the SEC Championship game. The Tigers won three of the meetings, the latest coming in their national championship season of 2019.

5 A.D. watch

Georgia’s injury issues, prevalent throughout the season, have boiled down to if and when A.D. Mitchell might play again.

We still don’t know.

The Bulldogs’ star receiver has been sidelined for the most part since the first play of the second game of the season. He may have aggravated a high-ankle sprain when he came back for a few plays against Auburn on Oct. 8. He hasn’t played since.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s starting nickel back, Javon Bullard, had to leave the Mississippi State game Saturday with what was determined later to be a “lower-leg contusion.” He was able to practice in a limited capacity this week.

“I’m hopeful for both of them,” Smart said.