Earlier this week, the debate in my head had been between the charmed season the ‘Cats have led — again, that’s not meant as a knock; good teams take advantage of breaks — and the reality that against their four common opponents this year, Georgia has outperformed Kentucky in every one. That had me thinking the 9.5-point spread was just a little high; the Dawgs by eight or nine seemed about right.
I’m starting to question that assessment now. Ironically, what’s got me started rethinking that is this write-up by a Kentucky beat writer, comparing the two teams’ position groups. He concludes that Kentucky wins by the narrowest of margins, 17-16.
That score, though, gave me one of those “hey, wait a minute” moments, in this case because Kentucky just went the entire month of October without scoring more than fourteen points in a game (and one of those went to overtime). UK is going to have more offensive success against Georgia than it did against Vandy or Missouri? Okay, if you insist, but tell me why.
Now, the 16 points he attributes to Georgia is an interesting number, because, of course, it’s the exact number Georgia scored in its loss to LSU. You can certainly make the argument that Kentucky’s defense is enjoying a similar year to LSU’s, but there was another factor in play in Baton Rouge that I question will be there in Lexington tomorrow.
Against Georgia, LSU ran a stunning 81 plays on offense. That’s a huge number for a team that wasn’t playing catch up in the second half. Kentucky, by comparison, has generated more than 70 plays only once in conference play, last week against Missouri, when it was in scramble mode in the entire second half. For the most part, that’s not the way UK’s offense is built.
That LSU game is the only game this season in which Georgia’s offense has failed to tally at least 30 points. Again, if you want to insist that Kentucky is going to hold Georgia’s offense 20 points under its season average in conference play, fine, but tell me how.
No snark or smugness intended here. I have too much respect for what Kentucky’s done this season for that, but I have similar respect for the statistical story that’s been told. Barring a barrage of turnovers, I have a hard time getting to a 17-16 result.
Ian Boyd’s game summary at Football Outsiders tells much the same tale. Advanced stats don’t indicate a close, low-scoring game. In particular, while we’ve questioned Georgia’s defensive play at times this year, there’s a huge gap between Georgia’s defensive performance and Kentucky’s offensive performance. Kentucky simply isn’t that good; more significantly, it’s decidedly one-dimensional. If there’s one thing you can say about Mel Tucker’s defense, it’s that when they can force an opponent to be one-dimensional, they know what to do.
As Ian puts it,
… They don’t want to rely on heroics in the passing game to beat Georgia, as the Bulldogs have been playing excellent football in their secondary this season. Where Georgia has been vulnerable is in their run defense, where they are replacing star Roquan Smith with some younger talent that hasn’t always found the ball consistently. They’ve also had to replace 2017 nose tackle John Atkins, so the middle of their defense has been vulnerable against the run game. The only problem for Kentucky is that the Bulldogs will likely get their safeties heavily involved and make Terry Wilson prove he can beat man coverage.
It may be even more lopsided, in that Kentucky’s receiving corps has been close to being a one-man band this season. Lynn Bowden, Jr. has more than a third of their total catches and yardage. I know Georgia prefers to deploy its corners to sides of the field rather than specific receivers, but it’s sure got to be tempting to put Baker on Bowden in order to take away some of that production and really make problems for Wilson.
As far as the other match up goes, that, of course, is a closer call. But — and you knew there’d be a but, right? — there is a catch.
Georgia has had injury issues along their offensive line, but they are still mauling opponents up front in their inside zone run game, with running backs Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift combining for 1,025 yards and nine touchdowns thus far on the year. A typical Georgia inside zone play sees massive movement across the front, particularly where center Lamont Gaillard is helping to double-team some poor soul into the turf. Beyond that, the Georgia passing game has also been effective with quarterback Jake Fromm continuing to excel throwing back-shoulder fades to big targets outside while also improving over 2017 in throwing in the seams. This will be a stiff challenge for Kentucky as Georgia is built to simply overpower teams — it’s not enough to always be in the right spot.
That, again, was what was so big about LSU controlling the ball as well as it did. Not only did the Tigers wear down Georgia’s defense, but as the lead expanded, it left the Dawgs in a position where they couldn’t stay in their comfort zone on offense and do the same thing. Kentucky isn’t particularly explosive on offense and it isn’t built to run 80+ plays in a game, so how does it avoid its defense (and, remember, the ‘Cats lack the depth that Georgia enjoys) being ground down over four quarters?
I’m at a point now where I’m starting to have trouble seeing this game settled in Georgia’s favor for less than two touchdowns. At least that’s where my head is. My heart may still be a little uneasy with that. Either way, though, barring the usual caveats about turnovers, I am puzzled to figure out Kentucky’s path to victory. Is being destiny’s team enough?