ATHENS, Ga. — If you happened to catch some of Kirby Smart’s weekly press conference Monday, then you heard Georgia’s coach raving about Kentucky. Like the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs, the No. 11-ranked Wildcats (6-0, 4-0 SEC) come into Saturday’s game at Sanford Stadium undefeated with championships on their minds.
Kentucky is in its ninth season under Mark Stoops, a coach with whom Smart shares a lot of history. Stoops has had only one losing season in his past six in Lexington, a remarkable accomplishment considering the program’s history. They won 10 games in 2018 and are off to their best start in 71 years this season. The last time the Wildcats were 6-0 was 1950 under a coach named Bear Bryant.
“When you look at what coach Stoops has been able to do, it’s pretty remarkable,” Smart said Monday. “First off, he’s a really good football coach. I’ve known him a long time. Recruited against him. We went head-to-head on a lot of recruits back when he was Florida State’s defensive coordinator and I was at Alabama. He is a tremendous coach, a tremendous builder of men. … They perform at such a high level.”
Smart said the Wildcats will bring in the best combination of offensive and defensive lines the Bulldogs have seen this season. Kentucky is coming off back-to-back wins over Florida and LSU. After Saturday’s 42-21 win over the Tigers, redshirt freshman guard Eli Cox (6-foot-4, 293 pounds) and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Octavius Oxendine (6-1, 318) were named linemen of the week by the SEC. Cox graded 91% and helped the Wildcats rush for 330 yards; Oxendine, a freshman All-American last season, registered three tackles and two sacks from his interior line position.
But you can’t arrive at the halfway point of the season undefeated with just a couple of a good players. Following are six more — one for each victory — that have helped put Kentucky in position to challenge the Bulldogs in the SEC’s Eastern Division:
— QB Will Levis: Pronounced LEH-viss, not like the blue-jean company, Levis is the biggest reason the Wildcats have turned it around on offense this season. A graduate transfer from Penn State, this 6-foot-3, 232-pound junior is skilled and tough. He gives the Wildcats another rusher on the field, as his 4.1 yards per carry average and three touchdowns attest. But he’s also a proficient passer. He has completed 64% of his throws for 1,134 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions.
— RB Chris Rodriguez: UGA fans should remember this 5-11, 224-pound back. He’s a native Georgian who played at Ola High School and was ignored by UGA in recruiting. Last year, he rushed for 108 yards to become one of only two players to go over 100 yards against the Bulldogs. He comes into Saturday’s game as the SEC’s leading rusher with 759 yards, seven touchdowns and a 6.33 per-carry average.
— OT Darian Kinnard: Smart called Kinnard the most physical offensive lineman in the SEC. The 6-5, 345-pound senior is a four-year starter at left tackle. Pro Football Focus grades him as college football’s top run-blocking tackle. A preseason All-SEC selection, he’s played in 39 games with 33 starts at left tackle in his career.
— WR Wan’Dale Robinson: This 5-11, 185-pound junior does it all for the Wildcats. He transferred to Kentucky from Nebraska, where he was a standout running back before switching to receiver. He’s now the Wildcats top pass-catching threat with 37 catches for 527 yards and four touchdowns, also returns punts and has his team’s longest rush of the year (64 yards).
— DE Josh Paschal: This 6-3, 278-pound senior does it all for a Wildcats defense that is second to Georgia in most defensive categories. Paschal leads Kentucky with 7.5 tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries and sets the edge against the run with 25 total tackles.
— DB Yusuf Corker: Another McDonough product, this 6-0, 197-pound safety is the Wildcats’ defensive captain. A second-team preseason all-conference selection, Corker was second on the team with 77 tackles last year and comes into Saturday’s game with 36 stops, third for the Wildcats, and a team-best six pass breakups.
Georgia’s Smart again on Stoop’s Wildcats: “I say it all the time, to be a good football coach you have to have all of the phases: The recruiting phase, the organizational phase, the development phase. You have to be good in all phases — offense, defense, and special teams — and they are really incredible at all three. They have a great system set up that they recruit to. They develop guys. It seems like every year you are talking about their defense, and they are doing a tremendous job offensively this year, as well. The quarterback and transfers they have gotten have really added juice to their offense, and they have a great special teams unit as well.”
In short, the Wildcats are for real.