SEC East is still least of Georgia’s concerns

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

There are two constants for Georgia since Kirby Smart quickly developed the Bulldogs into a national powerhouse. They’ll play great defense, and they needn’t worry much about the SEC East. Half of Georgia’s division foes got their shots in during Smart’s first season as coach in Athens. Only two of them have done so since.

The Bulldogs lost games to three East foes in 2016. Even Vanderbilt got in on the act. Georgia is 28-2 against East opponents over the past five seasons. The victories were by an average margin of 25.7 points. The losses ended up being flukes. There was that weird 2019 defeat against South Carolina, and Florida hasn’t won a big game since besting the Bulldogs in 2020.

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Now some signs suggest that the East won’t be such an easy walk for the Bulldogs this season. The best players from last season’s all-time great UGA defense are in the NFL now. Upstart Kentucky is No. 20 in the preseason AP poll. Florida has a new coach and a quarterback with star potential. Josh Heupel’s fast-paced attack made Georgia’s defense sweat a bit in Knoxville last season and should be better in Year 2.

There’s also some statistical backing for a stronger East in 2022. ESPN analyst Bill Connelly’s SP+ projection likes three division teams a lot more than poll voters: Kentucky is 11th, Tennessee is 16th and Florida is 26th. Connelly’s formula considers the production of returning players, recent recruiting success and recent history.

Maybe there’s truth in those numbers. I hope so. It would make the East interesting for a change. I’m always looking for underdog angles. But I don’t buy that any of those teams are a real threat to the Bulldogs. The polls, betting markets and a different ESPN projection all agree.

Kentucky is the only ranked team among division opponents (AP No. 20, coaches’ poll No. 21). Oddsmakers give Georgia an 85% chance to win the East, while Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky each have less than a 10% shot. Georgia has a 90% probability to win the East, per ESPN’s Football Power Index. The chances of an East team upsetting Georgia, per FPI, range from slim (16.7% for Kentucky) to almost none (0.8% for Vanderbilt).

That tracks with the state of the respective programs. That 2020 victory over Georgia, and subsequent East title, was the high point for Florida under coach Dan Mullen. Tennessee’s 7-6 finish in Heupel’s first season seems good only because the Volunteers have underachieved for so long. Then there’s Kentucky, which is 12-61-2 all time against Georgia and has lost 12 meetings in a row.

The Wildcats may have their best team in decades. More than once, Smart has expressed appreciation for Kentucky’s physical style. Mark Stoops has improved the recruiting and got help from the transfer portal after last season’s 10-3 finish. The schedule is tough − the Wildcats are at Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee − but Kentucky football is no joke.

It’s still a stretch to think Kentucky is a real threat to Georgia. It means believing the Wildcats can close the three-touchdown gap (before garbage time) from last season. The Wildcats will be at home this time, and they have a good quarterback, Will Levis. However, his top target from 2021, Wan’Dale Robinson, is in the NFL along with first-team All-SEC offensive tackle Darian Kinnard.

Stoops’ program can’t absorb personnel losses as well as the SEC heavyweights. That’s why, historically, the Wildcats have followed great seasons by their standards with mediocre-to-bad campaigns.

Kentucky was last ranked in the preseason AP poll in 1978, when Fran Curci was coach. He was named SEC Coach of the Year in 1977 after his team finished 10-1 and achieved its highest ranking at No. 6. But Kentucky was 4-6-1 in 1978. The Wildcats have compiled losing records in 26 of 44 seasons since then, with only three appearances in the final AP poll.

Kentucky still is an average program by SEC standards. In nine seasons at Kentucky, Stoops owns only eight victories against league opponents with winning records. He’s 9-20 against ranked teams, including 4-17 vs. those from the SEC. But, considering the program’s history, you can understand the excitement for football in Lexington. Stoops is winning like Bill Curry, Rich Brooks and so many others couldn’t.

Stoops’ teams have posted five of the program’s winning records and finished ranked twice. The Wildcats have played in six consecutive bowl games and won four in a row, both school records (they qualified for a bowl with a 4-6 record under the 2020 pandemic rules). That’s why Stoops is Kentucky’s longest-tenured coach, beating Curci’s nine years.

“I am proud of that, and I appreciate the work,” Stoops said at SEC Media Days last month. “However, we’re not satisfied. We want to continue to grow. We want to continue to push it.”

With two victories this season, Stoops will surpass Bear Bryant’s school record of 60. Bryant reportedly left Kentucky because he felt his team was overshadowed by Adolph Rupp’s basketball program. That history was echoed recently when John Calipari started a public feud with Stoops.

Calipari, lobbying for renovations to his team’s practice facility, called Kentucky a “basketball school.” Stoops responded by taking an indirect shot at Calipari’s recent postseason failures and asserting that his program “didn’t wake up on third base.”

Calipari wasn’t lying. Kentucky is a basketball school. Stoops also told the truth. Building a winning football program there is much harder. Stoops has done that. There’s still another level for him to reach. The Wildcats have their highest preseason expectations in nearly 45 years.

They’ll be left disappointed if their hopes include dethroning Georgia in the East. The same goes for Tennessee and Florida. Once again, the East will be the least of Georgia’s concerns as the Bulldogs make another run to the SEC Championship game and College Football Playoff.