The stage is set for a de facto SEC East Division championship this Saturday, as Kentucky travels to Athens to take on Georgia. The Bulldogs and Wildcats are the only remaining unbeaten teams in the SEC in 2021, as both sport a 4-0 mark in conference play going into Week 7. There are larger implications in play here too, as Georgia owns the No. 1 spot in this week's rankings, and Kentucky could be in the mix for a New Year's Six bowl at the end of the year if it can finish 11-1 or 10-2.
Dominant is the best way to sum up Georgia's 6-0 start to the season. After beating Clemson 10-3 in the season opener in Charlotte, the Bulldogs crushed UAB 56-7 and defeated South Carolina 40-13. Over the last three weeks, Georgia has won easily against Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and Auburn by a combined score of 133-10. After Alabama's loss to Texas A&M, Smart has the Bulldogs positioned to win it all, but the program still has to take care of business the rest of the way, starting with matchups against Kentucky and Florida in October. After those, Georgia has a favorable four-game slate to close out the regular season — Missouri, at Tennessee, FCS Charleston Southern, and at Georgia Tech.
While Georgia's dominance was expected, Kentucky has been one of the biggest surprises in the SEC this season. A bowl game and a winning record were certainly expected for coach Mark Stoops, but the Wildcats are poised to push for double-digit victories and could finish second in the SEC East. Kentucky crushed ULM 45-10 to start the year and notched one-score victories over Missouri, FCS Chattanooga, and South Carolina before a 20-13 stunner over Florida on Oct. 2. The Wildcats had no letdown from the huge win over the Gators, as Stoops' squad soundly defeated LSU 42-21 last Saturday. The victory over the Tigers gave the program its first 6-0 start since 1950. Georgia is the last remaining ranked opponent on Kentucky's schedule, and there's a good shot this team is favored in its next five games — at Mississippi State, Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, New Mexico State, and at Louisville.
Georgia holds a commanding 60-12-2 series edge over Kentucky. The Bulldogs have won 11 in a row over the Wildcats. Kentucky has not won in Athens since 2009 and only one of the last eight matchups was decided by one score.
No. 11 Kentucky at No. 1 Georgia
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia -23
When Kentucky Has the Ball
Improving the production on offense — especially in the passing game — was a priority for Stoops this offseason. Veteran play-caller Eddie Gran was jettisoned in favor of Liam Coen, who came to Lexington after a stint in the NFL with the Rams. While Coen's arrival hasn't turned Kentucky's offense into the best in the SEC, it's obvious the former UMass quarterback has had an impact on this group. The Wildcats are averaging 31.7 points through four SEC games (up from 21.7 in conference play last year) and 6.3 yards per play (up from 5.1). Coen's play-calling over the entire season is still tilted towards the run (62 percent), but Kentucky has already hit on six plays of 40-plus yards after connecting on that same number all of last season.
Any hopes of a Kentucky upset at Georgia have to start with Coen and new quarterback Will Levis. The Penn State transfer isn't posting monster numbers through the air (189.0 yards per game), but he's connecting on 64.4 percent of his throws, averages 8.4 yards per attempt, and still gives the offense an element of the run game (163 yards) under center. Levis has five completions of 40-plus yards already this season, and it's critical for the Wildcats to try and stretch the field on Saturday afternoon. Wan'Dale Robinson (37 catches for 527 yards) is the unquestioned No. 1 receiver, but the offense is not expected to have Josh Ali (17) due to injury. Other receivers and playmakers have to step up in the passing game on Saturday.
Levis is aided by an offensive line that is among the nation's best, which features standout right tackle Darian Kinnard and LSU transfer Dare Rosenthal anchoring the other side. This group has allowed just 10 sacks over six games but will be tested in a big way on Saturday. Georgia is limiting teams to 3.6 yards per play and 5.5 points a game in 2020. The strength of this team rests with an active front (22 sacks), while the secondary is allowing quarterbacks to complete just 50 percent of their passes.
While Levis and the offense have to make plays through the air to have any hope of an upset, the Wildcats still want to find ways to get the ground game on track. Running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. is among the best in the nation at his position, totaling 768 yards and five scores in '21. The Georgia native has rushed for at least 99 yards in each of Kentucky's four SEC games this fall, but the Bulldogs simply aren't giving up much on the ground. Can Rodriguez find some running room to keep Georgia's defense off-balance and ease some of the pressure on Levis?
When Georgia Has the Ball
Injuries have taken a toll on Georgia's receiving corps and quarterback JT Daniels this season. But despite a group that's currently shorthanded, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in conference-only games by averaging 43.3 points a game and rank fourth in the league in yards per play (6.5). Assuming coordinator Todd Monken's group gets healthy over the next two months under center and at receiver, the potential for this offense is enormous.
Daniels has missed the last two games due to a lat injury and is questionable to play against Kentucky. If Daniels is sidelined for the third game in a row, the Bulldogs will turn to Stetson Bennett under center. Bennett may not have the physical talent of Daniels, but he's been more than effective. In five games this year, Bennett has connected on 69.4 percent of his passes for 746 yards and eight touchdowns to just two picks.
Similar to his counterpart on the other side, Bennett is supported by one of the top offensive lines in college football, which has allowed just three sacks in 2021, along with a deep stable of running backs. Zamir White (354 yards) headlines the backfield, but James Cook (245 yards), Kendall Milton (210), and Kenny McIntosh (129 yards) will see snaps.
A couple of players in Georgia's receiving corps are still on the mend, but even if this group is less than full strength on Saturday, the weapons are there for Bennett to keep this offense performing at a high level. Tight end Brock Bowers (20 catches), freshman Ladd McConkey and rising star Jermaine Burton (13) headline the top statistical options. Kentucky ranks seventh in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed just one play of 40-plus yards through six contests. However, the depth of Georgia's receiving corps and Bennett's play in '21 will test those numbers.
A concern for Kentucky's defense going into Saturday's game rests up front in the trenches. Statistically, the Wildcats have been strong here, limiting teams to 3.4 yards per carry and 111.3 rushing yards a contest. However, the line is now without two key members, as Marquan McCall and Octavious Oxendine are sidelined due to injury. The absence of those two players could help Georgia find a little more running room, as well as focus more on the edge to limit a pass rush that's generated 42 tackles for a loss this fall.
On paper, with the rankings of both teams in mind, along with the stakes for the SEC East title picture, this should be one of the better games of the week. However, there's a significant gap between Georgia and most of college football right now. For Kentucky to win, Stoops' team needs to generate a couple of takeaways and hit a few big passing plays from Levis to Robinson to alleviate some of the defensive focus away from the ground game. The Bulldogs aren't at full strength on offense, but with a suffocating defense and home-field advantage, Smart's team should cruise to a 7-0 record.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Kentucky 13
Podcast: Week 7 Preview & Predictions + Picks Against the Spread