ATHENS (TNS) — To earn a second straight Southeastern Conference Eastern Division football title, the Georgia Bulldogs must face an unexpected challenger with an unexpectedly good defense.
Kentucky awaits Georgia’s visit with a veteran defense allowing 13.0 points per game, which is tied for the national lead with Clemson. The Wildcats are coming off a 15-14 win at Missouri in which they forced the Tigers, who entered last weekend averaging 501.1 yards a contest, into a whopping eight three-and-outs during the second half.
The Wildcats are the only Bowl Subdivision team yet to allow an opponent more than 20 points in any game.
“That’s rough to know, but I definitely have faith in our offense,” Georgia sophomore receiver Jeremiah Holloman, who had two touchdown receptions this past weekend in a 36-17 victory over Florida, said Monday afternoon. “I feel like we can go out and do what we’ve got to do to get the job done. It is a tough defense.
“They have an experienced squad in the secondary, and we will have to be on our A-game this week in practice and in our preparation.”
Kentucky has been even better in conference contests, surrendering 12.3 points per game. The Wildcats have led the SEC in scoring defense just twice before, accomplishing the feat with Bear Bryant’s 1949 Orange Bowl team and in 1977, when Fran Curci’s Wildcats went 10-1 but were on NCAA probation.
The success of the Wildcats is due to their experience, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, as their defense contains eight senior starters.
“Any defense I’ve coached or any team that I’ve been involved in coaching that has this many seniors is usually pretty successful,” Smart said, “because they’ve played in our conference. Everybody wants to talk about how many stars they have or how many great recruits they have. How many games have these guys played? You’re going to be pretty successful when you play that many games.”
Georgia did not have any difficulty with Kentucky’s in during last year’s encounter inside Sanford Stadium, as the Bulldogs racked up 504 yards in their 42-13 rout. Former Bulldogs tailback Nick Chubb rushed 15 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns, and Georgia rushed for 381 yards overall.
The Wildcats are allowing just 108.5 rushing yards a game this season, which ranks 17th nationally.
“They’ve gotten better every year we’ve played them,” junior tight end Isaac Nauta said. “Lexington was a tough place to play my freshman year. I think we only won that one by a field goal. They have a really good team with a lot of good players, and they’re definitely physical.”
Heading Kentucky’s defensive efforts is senior outside linebacker Josh Allen, who was a two-star recruit in the 2015 signing class and was the nation’s No. 2,121 prospect according to 247Sports.com. Allen is now a 6-foot-5, 252-pound menace who ranks among the top three nationally in sacks (1.25 per contest), tackles for loss (1.8) and caused fumbles (0.63).
In the win at Missouri, Allen racked up 11 tackles and two sacks.
“You’ve got to know where he is at all times,” Smart said. “He’s what you want when you design a 3-4 defense. He’s your prototype guy, and he’s been disruptive to everyone in this conference.”
Georgia defeated Florida despite multiple injuries on the offensive line that resulted in changing lineups. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, none of those injuries in Jacksonville were serious.
“We’re pretty clean across the board on the offensive line,” Smart said. “All those guys are fine and will be practicing.”
Sophomore left tackle Andrew Thomas continues to push through a sore ankle, while redshirt sophomore right guard Ben Cleveland has yet to be cleared after fracturing his fibula during the Sept. 22 win at Missouri. Cleveland made the trip to Jacksonville.
Odds and ends
This will be the third winner-take-all game in SEC East history, joining Tennessee’s victory at Florida in 2001 and South Carolina’s win at Florida in 2010. The starting time for Georgia’s home game next week against Auburn will not be known until Sunday. Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Netori Johnson, who has appeared in four of eight games this year, was working Monday on the defensive line. Georgia has won eight straight meetings against Kentucky and holds a commanding 57-12-2 series lead.