After SEC ‘gauntlet,’ Georgia eyes another undefeated season

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Georgia’s 16-6 win over Kentucky at Kroger Field on Saturday was short on highlights but went long on accomplishments.

Here’s just a few of them:

  • The victory got the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs to 11-0 and closed the SEC schedule with a second consecutive 8-0 record.
  • Georgia becomes the third SEC team since the conference expanded to an eight-game schedule in 1992 to post back-to-back 8-0 marks. Alabama (2008-09) and Florida (1995-96) were the last two.
  • Georgia’s streak of SEC regular-season wins stands at 19. It is the fourth time since 2017 the Bulldogs went 6-0 against their Eastern Division brethren.
  • Georgia has tallied 11 wins for the 14th time in school history – but the fifth time under coach Kirby Smart. It’s the second year in a row the Bulldogs got off to an 11-0 start. Before 2021, the previous time had been 1982.
  • Georgia’s senior class improves to 45-5. The 2021 seniors established the current school record at 45-8 last year.

“We knew this gauntlet was coming, and our guys put their heads down and worked really hard,” Smart said of the Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Kentucky stretch to end the SEC slate. “Regardless of who we’ve faced, we stood up to the test that we’ve been asked to. I am proud of what they’ve done.”

ExploreHummer: All this winning ain’t so easy, as Bulldogs show against Kentucky

The Bulldogs will look to record back-to-back 12-0 regular seasons for the first time in school history when they host Georgia Tech (5-6, 4-4 ACC) for Senior Day next Saturday at Sanford Stadium (noon, ESPN).

Here are five other things we learned Saturday:

1. ‘Respect the rivalry’

While Georgia was hanging on to win in Kentucky, Georgia Tech was putting together a shocker 500 miles away in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Yellow Jackets scored 21 unanswered points to knock off 13th-ranked North Carolina 21-17. Tech was able to do it while playing with its third- and fourth-string quarterbacks.

The Jackets will have upset on their mind again when they visit Sanford Stadium for the first time since 2018 on Saturday.

“I don’t know a lot about them,” Smart said. “Obviously, we broke them down a lot in the offseason. I’ve got a lot of respect for interim head coach Brent (Key). I know Brent well. I’ve known him for a long time. I respect the rivalry. I look forward to going and preparing for them.”

Smart is 4-1 against the Yellow Jackets as Georgia’s coach. He was 3-1 as a safety for the Bulldogs from 1995-98.

2. The ‘Great Eraser’

Georgia should consider a new nickname for its defense. The “Great Eraser” would be fitting.

Whether it is coaching mistakes, offensive turnovers or even their own occasional shortcomings, the Bulldogs’ defenders tend to wipe everything clean.

That was the case again Saturday inside Kentucky’s icy, cold Kroger Field. Georgia’s defense gave up a 99-yard scoring drive to the Wildcats after Smart inexplicably passed on the chance to put the Bulldogs ahead 19-0 with an 18-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.

But then Georgia stopped Kentucky’s two-point conversion try with 9:52 to play to keep the score at 16-6. Then the Bulldogs ramped up the pressure on quarterback Will Levis to back up the Wildcats after they reached their 16 on their next possession. Ultimately, that resulted in a missed Kentucky field goal.

“I think we’ve built some of those (resiliency) muscles that maybe last year’s team never got to flex,” Smart said. “They have responded to some adverse situations and been put in some tough situations.”

Georgia led the nation last year with a defense that allowed 10.2 points per game. After Kentucky managed six Saturday, the Bulldogs have allowed 122 points so far this season, or 11.1 per game. Once again, that leads the nation.

Sophomore linebacker Smael Mondon tallied a team-high 11 tackles. Sophomore linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson and freshman safety Malaki Starks had eight apiece. Kelee Ringo had his second interception of the season and returned it 45 yards out of the end zone.

ExploreBreakdown: No. 1 Georgia 16, Kentucky 6

3. No regrets

After some prodding by reporters, Smart seemed to accept – grudgingly – that his decision to pass on an easy field goal that would’ve put the Bulldogs ahead three scores in the fourth quarter was a mistake. But he didn’t necessarily regret it.

“I wanted to show confidence in our players,” he said. “If I had a chance to go out there and do it again, I’d say, ‘Let’s go out there and do it again,’ because that’s what I believe in. That decision was made 15 years ago on philosophy.”

Smart made a similar coaching error at the end of the first half against Mississippi State the previous week. Georgia led 17-6 at its own 20 with 44 seconds remaining in the first half. State was down to one timeout, and Georgia was set to get the ball to start the second half. Georgia passed the ball on three consecutive downs, came up short for a first down and left enough time on the clock that it had to punt. State returned that punt 63 yards for a touchdown with three seconds remaining. Also failing on the two-point try, the Maroon Dogs trailed 17-12 at halftime.

4. Kenny Mac attack

Georgia’s 247 yards rushing was its second most in a game this season. Senior Kenny McIntosh led the way with 143 yards on 19 carries – both career highs – and scored the Bulldogs’ only touchdown on a 9-yard run in the third quarter.

“Kenny ran the ball really well tonight, really physical,” Smart said. “He tucked the ball up. I thought the offensive line was really physical, did a really good job in the run game to be able to get the ball out of there a couple of times. … Awesome. Probably could have had more but he shared the load with some other guys. I thought all those guys ran the ball well.”

Daijun Edwards added 50 yards on 14 carries, Kendall Milton had 31 on six attempts and quarterback Stetson Bennett averaged 5 yards on five carries.

Georgia had a rare red-zone scoring failure to start the fourth quarter, going 4-for-5 with one TD, three field goals and turnover on downs. The Bulldogs are now 59-for-61 in the red zone including 40 TDs, 19 FGs, one missed field goal and once turning it over on downs.

Georgia came into the game ranked No. 2 nationally in fourth-down conversions at 90%.

5. More injuries

Georgia played its eighth game in the last nine without star wide receiver A.D. Mitchell, who did not make the trip to Kentucky. After suffering a high-ankle sprain on the first play of the Samford game in the second week of the season, Mitchell played only five snaps against Auburn, when he may have aggravated the injury.

Freshman wideout De’Nylon Morrissette also did not travel Saturday. Smart said he is dealing with hamstring and knee issues.

Starting right guard Tate Ratledge made the trip but did not play. He suffered a subluxation of a shoulder last week. Redshirt sophomore Devin Willock, who normally plays left guard, started at right guard. Senior Warren Ericson also took some snaps there.