ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia is on the brink of completing an improbable comeback, from 0-2 to the Southeastern Conference Championship game.
The No. 13 Bulldogs (8-2, 6-1) can clinch the Eastern Division title and a spot in the title game in Atlanta by beating Kentucky today at Sanford Stadium.
If Kentucky beats Georgia, South Carolina would win the East in a tiebreaker.
The Bulldogs are coming off their most impressive win, a 45-7 romp over No. 24 Auburn.
“We never lost confidence in ourselves, our teammates or our coaches,” said quarterback Aaron Murray. “We’ve just been chipping away, chipping away, and we gained confidence.”
Georgia has beaten Tennessee, Florida and Auburn in the same season for the first time since 1981, but the Bulldogs must stretch their winning streak to nine for a spot in the SEC championship game.
Today – Senior Day – provides a reminder that this is a young team. Georgia has three senior starters on its offensive line – center Ben Jones, left tackle Cordy Glenn and right tackle Justin Anderson – but almost all of its top skill position players are underclassmen.
Cornerback Brandon Boykin and defensive end DeAngelo Tyson are the only senior starters on defense.
Kentucky (4-6, 1-5) is trying to protect its slim bowl hopes and bounce back from a 38-8 loss at Vanderbilt.
Coach Joker Phillips said Thursday that Kentucky will be missing two defensive starters, linebacker Ridge Wilson (shoulder) and safety Martavius Neloms (high ankle sprain).
Wilson injured his shoulder against Mississippi two weeks ago and missed the loss to Vanderbilt. Neloms left the Vanderbilt game with a high ankle sprain.
“We’re beat up, banged up, but got to go,” Phillips said.
The good news late in the week was Phillips’ announcement that linebacker Winston Guy (shoulder) is expected to start.
Offensive guard Stuart Hines said Kentucky can salvage its season by beating Georgia and Tennessee.
“If we come out of those on the winning end, it’s going to be a real season saver for us,” Hines said. “We’ve had tough times throughout the whole season. We had a couple of games where we were doing better. Then we had the game at Vandy where we fell off a little bit. So we’re looking to get back on track and we can still save the season and make something out of it.”
Turnovers were the difference when Kentucky beat Georgia in Athens in 2009.
Kentucky scored 14 points off Georgia’s four second-half turnovers to beat the Bulldogs 34-27 for its first win in Athens, Ga., since 1977. Georgia had a 487-260 advantage in total yards but was doomed by its minus-4 turnover margin.
“Certainly, two years ago we were up by 14, I think, at half and turned it over four times in the second half,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It didn’t help us at all.”
The 2009 home loss to Kentucky was part of a downturn in the Georgia program that continued with a 6-7 finish in 2010, including a Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida.
“It was tough coming off of that losing season, especially after that loss in the bowl game,” said senior tight end Aron White. “We did have some great seniors on that team and to have them come through and be a part of some great teams and then fall to that low point last year, it hurt us as a class to see those guys who were mentors to us and became our brothers go out and kind of have that memory of the end of their senior year.
“We talked about it early on in team meetings about that’s not going to be us. We’re not going to be that team. That’s not what Georgia is about.”
The losing record left Richt on the hot seat, and the pressure picked up when Georgia opened this season with losses to Boise State and South Carolina.
Even while others were pointing out Georgia’s weaknesses and doubting Richt’s future as the Bulldogs’ coach, Richt spoke with confidence that this could be a special team.
Richt’s confidence has been rewarded. Georgia ranks fourth in the nation in total defense. The defense is led by Jarvis Jones, who is third in the nation with 10 sacks, and Bacarri Rambo, who is second in the nation with seven interceptions.
“We’re doing things that good defenses do,” Richt said. “We’re stopping the run most of the time, we’re big up front, we’re very physical, we play hard and we’ve been causing a lot of fumbles.”
The offense is balanced, with freshman tailback Isaiah Crowell running for 821 yards despite being suspended for one game. Murray, a sophomore, has set a team record with 27 touchdown passes, topping Matthew Stafford’s 25 in 2008.