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GOTW Preview: Georgia vs Kentucky

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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A look at the Southern Pigskin Game of the Week: Georgia vs Kentucky.

Game of the Week Preview: Georgia vs Kentucky

Overview -- History follows both teams into this matchup. Georgia is ranked as the unanimous number one for the first time ever, while Kentucky is 6-0 for the first time since 1950. With every other team in the SEC East already having a loss, and Florida having two, including one to the Wildcats, the winner Saturday takes a considerable lead in the race to Atlanta. There are championship implications on the line. The top-ranked Bulldogs are outscoring their opponents by an average of 40-5 this year and have validated the hype each and every week. Fresh off wins over LSU and Florida and now up to 11th in the national polls, Kentucky has considerable momentum, too. Georgia has won every game in the series since 2009 and the Wildcats have only scored a total of three points in the last two meetings. ESPN College GameDay will be in Athens once more as the national spotlight continues to be on the Bulldogs.

Why to Watch -- Georgia's defense is playing at a generational level. Leading the nation in scoring defense, total defense, pass defense and redzone touchdown defense, the Bulldogs are dominant and relentless. They have given up only two touchdowns all season and have scored twice on their own. This group is playing its way into the record books. Kentucky will counter with the SEC's leading rusher in Chris Rodriguez, Jr., leading receiver in Wan'Dale Robinson and one of the best offensive lines in the game. The matchup of the Wildcats' front five against Georgia's defensive line will be a compelling one. The Bulldogs  have looked like a leading championship contender throughout. How they have maintained that standard, winning their four league games by a combined score of 173-23, has been very impressive.

Keys for Georgia
1. Don't Let Rodriguez Get Going -- Ranked in the top five nationally with 128 rushing yards per game, Chris Rodriguez leads college football by a wide margin with an impressive 23 runs of ten yards or more. So much of what Kentucky does starts with the running game setting the tone. Rodriguez is the catalyst. His production helps create opportunities for Will Levis the passing game downfield. The Wildcats will undoubtedly look to Rodriguez to be the offensive focal point, especially on the road. Kentucky is averaging 214.2 rushing yards per game. Georgia has not allowed a team to top 160 yards since 2018. With an overwhelming defensive front, the Bulldogs rank third nationally in giving up just 2.33 yards per carry this season. Disruption at the line of scrimmage, preventing Rodriguez from getting to the second level, will be key. That has been a consistent strength for Georgia for years now. Expect to see star linebacker Nakobe Dean, a true sideline-to-sideline defender, follow Rodriguez everywhere he goes.

2. Intermediate Passing Proficiency -- Georgia has done a really good job at developing a downfield passing game as the Bulldogs rank second in the SEC, behind only Ole Miss, with 9.8 yards per attempt. Stetson Bennett is averaging 12 yards per throw. Kentucky has largely prevented teams from long conversions through the air, slotting in the top ten in the country in giving up just 5.8 yards per attempt. In fact, the Wildcats have allowed the fewest passing plays of 20 yards or more in all of college football, with eight. That is a big reason for Kentucky's defensive success, which includes holding Florida to merely 13 points. It will be important for Bennett to find some seams beyond the sticks to prevent the Wildcats from being able to compartmentalize things defensively. Georgia needs to attack via the pass and Jermaine Burton and Ladd McConkey both average over 17 yards per reception, with tight end Brock Bowers over 15. The key to moving the football against the third ranked defense in the SEC, with Kentucky currently just one yard behind Alabama in yards per game allowed, is consistently completing passes downfield.  

3. Start Strong -- In emerging as the number one team in the nation, Georgia has overwhelmed almost every team and has done so right away. This has allowed the Bulldogs to control games immediately, dictate tempo and quickly make their opponents one-dimensional. It will take quite an effort for any team to beat Georgia, a challenge that becomes considerably more difficult when chasing points and trying to overcome an early deficit. Initial momentum is usually a must for any underdog as early success can come with extra confidence and belief. The type of game ultimately played on Saturday in Athens may be established very early as the first few drives will lay the foundation for the rest of the contest. Georgia wants to make an early statement. If the Bulldogs can continue to hit the ground running, it's unlikely even a very talented Kentucky team, playing on the road, will be able to respond.  

Keys for Kentucky
1. Home Run Plays -- Home runs are always important in October. Facing a Georgia defense that is not only the nation's best, but one of the best in college football in years, Kentucky will have to move the football via multiple chuck gains. It's simply not realistic to expect to consistently drive down the field against a defense currently allowed 203.5 yards and 5.5 points per game. The Wildcats have scored a total of three points against the Bulldogs in their last two meetings combined. That said, Kentucky does have the playmakers to potentially strike for a couple of highlight conversions. This was on display in the win over Florida; though the Wildcats had merely 224 total yards, a 41-yard touchdown from Wan'Dale Robinson may have been the play of the game. Kentucky doesn't have to consistently win the box score as timely big plays from Robinson and Chris Rodriguez can keep the Wildcats in the game. Robinson is tied for the SEC-lead with six catches of 30 yards or more, while Rodriguez is averaging 6.4 yards per rush. If Kentucky can catch an aggressive Georgia defense off guard with a few downfield strikes, this may be a close game late.

2. Protect the Football -- More of the same from Kentucky in the turnover department will almost certainly result in a lopsided loss in Athens. The Wildcats have the worst turnover margin in the SEC at minus-eight, which ranks 126th nationally. That should be a real point of emphasis for Kentucky as Georgia has the second-most turnovers forced in the league, with ten. A good starting point for better ball security is consistent play at the line of scrimmage. Keeping pass-rushers away from Will Levis, both in an attempt to prevent strip-sacks and not have him rush his throws, will be easier said than done as the Bulldogs rank in the top five nationally with 22 sacks. Talented tackles Darian Kinnard and Dare Rosenthal will have to be on their toes against Adam Anderson and Nolan Smith, who have a combined 6.5 sacks. Levis will also need to be aware of where Georgia safety Lewis Cine is as he has five pass deflections and an interception. The Wildcats' worst offensive output of the season came at South Carolina, where they had three turnovers. If Kentucky is going to compete with Georgia, the same mistakes cannot be repeated.

3. Improved Redzone Defense -- An offense as good as Georgia's will move the football. Can Kentucky respond when backed up near the goaline? Keeping this game close will depend partly on keeping the Bulldogs out of the endzone. The difference between giving up a field goal versus a touchdown can be the difference in staying in a game. The Wildcats have struggled in those situations thus far, with teams converting 68.75% of redzone trips to result in touchdowns. Georgia, for comparison, is at 12.5%. The good news is that the Bulldogs haven't been great offensively when in the scoring zone. Only South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt have a lower touchdown rate than Georgia at 58.62%. It hasn't hurt the Bulldogs as Georgia has had such big leads that such inefficiency hasn't really mattered. If Kentucky, which might have the best offense the Bulldogs have seen this season, can limit the damage done, the chances of staying in the game increase dramatically. The Wildcats have to be at their best defensively in the redzone. 

Players to Watch
Georgia: Nakobe Dean, LB -- Dean, with 3.5 sacks and an interception, may be college football's best linebacker. If you find to find him on Saturday, look for where the ball is and where tackles are made. Athletic and instinctive, Dean is the ideal middle-of-the-field defender. He is the Bulldogs' next great inside linebacker.

Kentucky: Chris Rodriguez, RB -- If Rodriguez can't get going, it will probably be a long afternoon for the Wildcats. He, as Kentucky's offensive focal point, is averaging 20 carries per game this season and should top that total against Georgia. Rodriguez could also be used more in the passing game this weekend. 

Conclusion
This game will come down to ... whether or not Kentucky can come up with the number of swing plays needed to put them in a better position to score touchdowns against Georgia's defense, a unit which has given up merely two touchdowns to date and is the best defense in all of college football.

Prediction
Georgia 34, Kentucky -- 16

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports