ATHENS – Welcome back to the University of Georgia, the center of the college football universe.
At least it is at the moment.
There has been a buzz about Georgia football all year, which is no different than any other year, really. The UGA fan base loves its Bulldogs, and so it has for ages.
But this season, the vibration is being felt far beyond state and regional borders. While there always has been enormous potential within and great expectation for this proud and accomplished program, something always has seemed to get in the way of the Bulldogs achieving the ultimate success, for the past four decades anyway.
Right now, that something is Kentucky.
The No. 11 Wildcats (6-0, 4-0 SEC) arrive at Sanford Stadium as the SEC’s only other undefeated team. Alabama lost that distinction against Texas A&M just before midnight Saturday night, and the whole world took notice.
With that, like an enormous lighthouse that oversees the college football landscape, its beacon turned away from College Station, Texas, and focused its white-hot beam of light right onto UGA. First, the Bulldogs (6-0, 4-0) were tabbed as the consensus No. 1 team in the land by both opinion polls of record, The Associated Press and the USA Today/Coaches. Then, all that encompasses ESPN’s considerable college football machine began to make its way toward this small northeast Georgia town.
On Saturday, everybody arrives.
“College Football GameDay” has set up before a Georgia game for the third time this season and the second time in three weeks on the UGA campus. According to ESPN, it is the second time ever that “GameDay” has visited the same site twice in a three-week span. The last time that happened was 2014, when they went to Tuscaloosa twice. On Saturday, you can find Lee Corso, Rece Davis, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and Georgia’s own David Pollack over on the Myers Quadrangle, just southwest of Sanford Stadium, from 9 a.m. to noon.
Six-tenths of a mile north, “SEC Nation” will be camped on the front lawn of the Richard B. Russell Special Collections Library on South Hull Street. Georgia wants everybody to drop by over there, too, to say hi to Paul Finebaum and friends as they conduct a pregame show from 10 a.m. to noon.
At 3:30 p.m., CBS Sports will be inside the stadium to broadcast the game to millions as its “SEC Game of the Week.” A fourth consecutive sellout crowd of 92,746 will provide the atmosphere as Georgia-Kentucky for homecoming suddenly has become the toughest ticket since Notre Dame visited in 2019.
Let’s just say, the fuss has been considerable. So fussy that it has been hard for the Bulldogs themselves not to notice.
“Honestly, it doesn’t really mean anything to us, or it doesn’t mean anything to me,” Georgia safety Lewis Cine said. “Because we haven’t accomplished anything yet. We’re treating it like every game is a playoff game. And this weekend is definitely a playoff game, because Kentucky hasn’t lost a game and they’re an explosive, tough team. So, we know we’re going to get a tough game. But we’re not really looking at all the glamour that’s out there, in terms of No. 1, in terms of the people coming in with the hype.”
It does have some tangible immediate benefits. All the attention on the program certainly has caught the eyes of impressionable recruits. Some of the top prospects in America were in town two weeks ago when Georgia played host to No. 8 Arkansas in a game that kicked off noon. There will be even more of a who’s who in recruiting in attendance for Saturday’s game against Kentucky, which traditionally doesn’t attract such a throng.
“I think it certainly attracts more players wanting to come to the game,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “There’s probably more infatuation with players’ saying, ‘I want to go to the game because GameDay is there’ than just, ‘I want to go to the game.’ I think it helps bring attention, and kids certainly like that show. There’s more excitement.”
Almost lost amid the hoopla is the very real and intense competition that will be waged within it. While Georgia has long dominated the yearly series with the Wildcats, winning 11 in a row and 60 of 74 all-time, they have been especially tough and physical opponent since Mark Stoops arrived as Kentucky’s coach.
The Bulldogs won 14-3 in Lexington last year, 21-0 the previous season in Athens and by an average of 16.2 points in each of Stoops’ past five seasons. But the common denominator in those contests was the opposing sides charged directly at each other with super-charged run games and hard-hitting defenses.
This year’s contest sets up similarly. The Wildcats bring in the SEC’s leading rusher in junior tailback Chris Rodriguez and one of the most bruising defenses in the league. Kentucky’s opponents are averaging only 17.5 points a game, and they’ve fought tooth-and-nail for each one.
“Oh, man, they are always one of the most physical games that we play,” Georgia guard Warren Ericson said. “They’re just hard-nosed and tough, just like our defensive and offensive lines. Both sides of the football are full of tough guys that are ready to just get down and get dirty and play the same style of physical football that we try to play.”
Perhaps that’s why both squads arrive so battered and bruised. The Wildcats announced this week that they will be without starting interior defensive linemen Octavious Oxendine and Marquan McCall, each of whom have “lower-leg injuries.” Also, No. 2 receiver Josh Ali is listed as doubtful, also with a leg injury.
Just this week, the Bulldogs lost defensive back Tykee Smith to a season-ending ACL tear in practice. He joins an injury list that includes starting left tackle Jamaree Salyer (ankle), starting safety Christopher Smith (shoulder) and cornerback Ameer Speed (ankle). Speed is out, and Salyer and Smith will be game-time decisions, as will several other receivers who have missed the past few games with injuries.
Meanwhile, the biggest storyline of all continues to be whether Georgia quarterback JT Daniels, considered a Heisman Trophy hopeful in the preseason, will be able to play. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound junior has missed the past two games with a grade 1 lat strain. Meanwhile, senior Stetson Bennett has kept the Georgia offense on the move and is expected to start again Saturday.
That’s one sidebar among many that will be discussed ad nauseum before Saturday’s game kicks off. But regardless of who plays or doesn’t play, it’s going to be what happens between those hallowed hedges that determines the narrative going forward.
The Bulldogs want it to be that they are unquestionably the best team in college football in 2021, just as the polls currently indicate. Many others, though, will be longing to see them tripped up again.
“Pressure is a privilege; coach Smart says it all the time,” junior wideout Kearis Jackson said. “We’re looking at it as though we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season. That means we have to win each and every game from here on out.”
Said Smart: “This game speaks for itself, what it means, who we’re playing, what the rankings are, what’s at stake, the East. … I think our fans are educated enough to know the importance of this one. Their impact could be the difference in the game.”
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