Five things to know ahead of Georgia-Kentucky meeting in battle of unbeatens

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, right, and Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops talk before the start of a game on Nov. 18, 2017, in Athens, Ga. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, right, and Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops talk before the start of a game on Nov. 18, 2017, in Athens, Ga. (Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

ATHENS — Whenever Georgia coach Kirby Smart talks about Kentucky under coach Mark Stoops, his words always drip with respect. That was the case again this week ahead of the No. 1 Bulldogs (5-0, 2-0 SEC) hosting Stoops’ 20th-ranked Wildcats (5-0, 2-0) in a matchup of two of the SEC’s three remaining unbeaten teams Saturday night at Sanford Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN).

“Looking forward to playing a very physical Stoops team,” Smart said. “Our guys always say they’re sorest after we play Kentucky. Kentucky-Georgia is just a physical, physical football game because they brand their football behind that, and so do we.”

The Bulldogs actually have won 13 in a row in the 75-game series they lead 61-12-2. But three of the past seven games were decided by two or fewer scores, and most have been tight through halftime, including last year’s 16-6 Georgia win in Lexington.

Here are five other things to watch for as the Dogs and ‘Cats tee it up Saturday:

Start fast

Georgia fell behind South Carolina (trailing 7-3) and Auburn (10-0) in the first quarter of its other SEC games this season and has scored only 17 points in the opening frame all season. For that reason, the Bulldogs will look for a fast start.

Between college football’s new clock rules and the fluke of circumstances, Georgia’s offensive possessions have been limited early. Against the Gamecocks, the Bulldogs ran 28 plays on their first two series, but had only three points to show for it because of red-zone breakdowns. Against Auburn, an interception on their second series and a long drive that ended in a short punt limited their completed offensive possessions to two.

Accordingly, Bulldogs might choose to receive the ball should they win the opening coin toss. But no matter when they first get the ball, they’ll be looking to score – fast.

“Absolutely,” Smart said.

It’s showtime!

Sanford Stadium is expected to be rocking Saturday as Georgia kicks off its first SEC night game since the 2021 SEC opener against South Carolina. The Bulldogs jumped on their visitors that night, receiving the opening kickoff and ripping their way down the field to score on James Cook’s 23-yard run just 2:39 into the contest. Quarterback JT Daniels hooked up with Jermaine Burton for a 43-yard TD pass on Georgia’s next possession, and the Bulldogs led 26-6 by halftime on the way to a 40-13 victory.

Early momentum will be even more important Saturday. Don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs come out slinging.

Georgia quarterback Carson Beck has proved to be one of the SEC’s better passers. Through five games, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior has completed 72% of his passes for 1,497 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Among his favorite targets is the best tight end in college football in Brock Bowers (82.6 ypg, 3 TDs). He also has three considerable deep-ball threats in Rara Thomas (18.6 yards per catch), Arian Smith (16.8 ypc) and CJ Smith (20.2 ypc).

Meanwhile, Kentucky comes to Athens with the nation’s No. 5 defense against the run (78 ypg) but is giving up 173.8 ypg passing, which ranks 46th in FBS. The Wildcats are led by 6-6, 248-pound defensive tackle Deone Walker and a pair of inside linebackers from Georgia in Trevin Wallace (6-2, 241) and D’Eryck Jackson (6-1, 245), who have 51 tackles between them. Trying to play “man-ball” against the Wildcats and running into the teeth of their defense does not seem a wise strategy.

Stop Ray

The Wildcats ran all over Florida 33-14 in Lexington on Saturday. Senior Ray Davis, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt, accounted for 280 of Kentucky’s 329 yards rushing in that game and scored four touchdowns, three on the ground and one on a 9-yard reception.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs’ rush defense has been the team’s biggest concern this season. They’re giving up 113.4 yards a game so far. Last year, Georgia led the nation against the run, at 77 ypg.

A lot of the Bulldogs’ breakdowns have been against quarterback run. But a closer look reveals that Kentucky exploited Florida in much the same way that that Auburn was able to take advantage of Georgia on Saturday. That is, through the concept of zone-read counter plays around the end. The Tigers got a 61-yard run and 107 ground yards from quarterback Payton Thorne on keepers on such plays last week.

Davis, who leads the SEC in rushing with 118.8 yards per game, had a 75-yard TD jaunt along with several other explosive runs against the Gators. He also has a 55-yard run and 58-yard catch this season.

“As good a back as I’ve seen in a long time,” said Smart, who compared Davis with former Bulldog D’Andre Swift, “only bigger.” “This guy’s smooth, explosive, he pass-protects really well, he protects the ball.”

Be resilient

Georgia claims “resiliency” as one of the program’s four pillars. That pillar hasn’t been holding its weight so far this season, on defense at least.

What the Bulldogs haven’t done well this season is keep opponents out of their end zone after breakdowns occur. Georgia committed two turnovers last week against Auburn; the Tigers turned both into offensive touchdowns. On the first, Auburn went 48 yards in seven plays. On the second, the Tigers went 32 yards in three plays.

The first answer to that, obviously, is not to turn the ball over. Georgia hasn’t been egregiously deficient in that regard, coming into Saturday’s game with a plus-2 turnover margin. That’s the same turnover rate as Kentucky.

But being more defensively resilient when mistakes do happen is something the Bulldogs must address Saturday. The Wildcats rank third in the SEC and 23rd nationally in red-zone scoring, at 92.31%.

Georgia’s offense has shown resiliency in its two come-from-behind victories. The Bulldogs have scored 135 of their 193 points (or 69.9%) in the second and third quarters this season and have outscored opponents 41-20 in the fourth period.

Health and safety

Georgia is going to be as healthy Saturday as it has been all season. Safety Javon Bullard and flanker Ladd McConkey returned against Auburn, and each made a huge impact. Senior running back Kendall Milton is expected to return Saturday and be a full-go for the first time in three weeks.

Against Auburn, Daijun Edwards was the only scholarship back to have a rushing attempt. Backed by converted split end Dillon Bell and walk-on Cash Jones, Edwards led the Bulldogs with 76 yards on 19 carries and scored two touchdowns.

Milton actually got in for five plays against the Tigers, though he didn’t carry the ball. Edwards took 44 of the Bulldogs’ 63 offensive snaps, Jones had six and Bell totaled 22 between split end and running back.

Defensive end Mykel Williams returned from an illness that sidelined him the previous week. He finished with only one tackle, but was Georgia’s second-highest graded defensive player by Pro Football Focus, at 77.9.

Starting right tackle Amarius Mims (ankle) is progressing after tight-rope surgery, but is looking at least another three weeks. Running back Roderick Robinson (ankle) and defensive lineman Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins (foot) also are expected to miss Saturday’s game.