Georgia’s run of survive-and-advance games doesn’t start at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 1.
It had been the wide-ranging and logical assumption ever since an image of the SEC Championship site stood off in the distance as players answered questions at the conference’s preseason media event.
It was the Bulldogs’ first goal, to get back to the place it had beaten Auburn 28-7 to claim its first conference title in 2005. It would also be where Georgia fell to Alabama in the national title game 26-23 five weeks later — but that’s a different story.
Well, now Georgia needs one more stop. In a surprising turn (to the media at least, who projected Kentucky to finish fifth in its division), Georgia’s first championship takes place 380 miles away against the Wildcats in Lexington, Ky.
It’s the SEC East championship game, in a sense. The winner clinches a spot in Atlanta with three regular season games remaining, while the loser’s only postseason appearance will be in a bowl game.
“We have to know what’s at risk,” Georgia wide receiver Jeremiah Holloman said. “There’s going to be an extra fire under us, because we know that if we lose this game, then we aren’t going to Atlanta. We definitely want to go back this year.”
“(These games) are big,” Georgia defensive back Tyrique McGhee said. “Everybody involved knows what’s at stake with a great SEC team in Kentucky.”
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart stated the team’s principle of keeping everything “neutral,” and using the coachspeak term of keeping equal importance in each game. It’s something that has been preached since the season opener against Austin Peay, but the vibe has slightly differed since the Bulldogs’ lone loss at LSU on Oct. 13.
It started with the Florida game and all that came with the tightly-contested rivalry in Jacksonville. Result: a 19-point win by Georgia. A week later, it’s a season-deciding game against a Kentucky team that hasn’t been to a conference title game in its history and hasn’t been named a lone SEC champion since 1950 under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Kentucky was named co-champion in 1976 with Georgia after a forfeit by Mississippi State.
“They know what’s at stake,” Smart said. “I don’t know that you have to build that up. This game is exactly what it is. It’s an opportunity to earn the right to win your division.
Added Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta: “That’s all of the motivation we need for this weekend.”
For Kentucky, some have called its opportunity to host Georgia as the biggest game in Wildcat program history. It may not be too much of a stretch based on Kentucky’s drought of conference championships.
Kentucky announced a sellout at Kroger Field on Oct. 6, and it could be a Rupp Arena-like atmosphere Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS) from a 67,606 capacity crowd. The Wildcats have finally broken past their norm of mediocrity under head coach Mark Stoops at 7-1 — his best seasons prior were 7-6 marks in 2016 and 2017.
“I have a lot of respect for Mark and the job he’s done,” Smart said. “I think it’s really remarkable, and it shows the patience of an athletic department to stick with a guy who I think is one of the best coaches in all of college football.”
Suddenly, ranked at No. 11 nationally, Kentucky has a chance to join the upper-echelon of teams.
“You have to find a way if you’re going to be a championship team,” Stoops said in his postgame press conference in a 15-14 win at Missouri, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. “You have to find a way to win games like this.”
Not if it’s up to Georgia, though.
Smart holds a 2-0 record against Kentucky, and his last trip to Lexington was a thrilling one. Bulldogs’ place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship hit a game-winning field goal to give the Bulldogs a 27-24 victory. At that time, the Bulldogs weren’t the national contender they’ve now become and Kentucky was headed for a Gator Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.
But it was the physicality that gives a point of reference for Georgia’s return. The Wildcats are now senior-laden and have yet to allow more than 20 points (tied with Clemson for the nation’s best average of 13 points allowed) — led by senior linebacker Josh Allen and an experienced defensive unit.
“I’m not surprised at all,” McGhee said. “Even my freshman year, I saw they had a great team. They’ve been building and have a great program.”
The better team, however, can be easily heard outside the team’s locker room.
Georgia’s last celebration was led by Smart in exuberant fashion after the win over Florida. Stoops, on the other hand, was hoisted to the ceiling after the Wildcats’ one-point win on the last play against Missouri.
One of them will be doing it again Saturday night, but this time with a ticket to Atlanta in hand. If it’s Georgia, Smart won’t mind another video going viral.
“That’s not unique to me in the locker room with the players,” he said. “I certainly enjoy and treasure the opportunity to celebrate with our guys, and they needed that, and I need it.”