The stakes for Georgia and Kentucky in the Nov. 3 game are simple.
The winner clinches the SEC East and a trip to Atlanta for the 2018 SEC Championship game on Dec. 1. The loser will be eliminated from division contention and will have to lower its postseason sights.
“Players get it. They know what’s at stake,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said on Oct. 29. “I don’t know that you have to build that up. This game is exactly what it is. It’s an opportunity to earn the right to win your division.”
Last season, the Bulldogs clinched the division on Nov. 4 with a win against South Carolina. However, that game and the game on Nov. 3 aren’t exactly the same.
Had the Bulldogs lost to South Carolina last year, they could have clinched the SEC East in either of their two remaining conference games.
But this year, this game is it. Both teams will have one remaining SEC game, and the winner will hold the tiebreaker over the loser even with a tie in the standings.
“It’s going to be a little bit of extra fire up under us because we know if we lose this game, then we’re not playing in Atlanta, and we definitely want to go back to Atlanta this year,” sophomore receiver Jeremiah Holloman said.
However, even though last year’s situation wasn’t exactly the same, junior tight end Isaac Nauta said he still believes that experience will help Georgia.
“We’ve been there before, so we’ve got that experience,” Nauta said. “A lot of guys on the team do, some don’t, obviously. But we’ve been in this position before, so we know how it feels. We know what we’ve got to do.”
Georgia players surely expected to be playing in a game where if they won, the East was theirs. Nauta said a little bit of pressure is taken off because the players don’t have to worry about what other teams around the division are doing.
"“It’s going to be a little bit of extra fire up under us because we know if we lose this game, then we’re not playing in Atlanta, and we definitely want to go back to Atlanta this year."
- Jeremiah Holloman, Georgia wide receiver
However, few around the country predicted it would be Kentucky that the Bulldogs would be trying to eliminate from SEC East title contention. The Wildcats sit at 7-1, their best start since 1976, and they are looking to win their first division championship since the SEC split into two divisions before the 1992 season.
“It’s not usual to see that,” Nauta said about Kentucky at the top of the league standings. “But I can tell you over the last three years how much better they’ve gotten. Now this year, it’s not a surprise to me at all.”
Kentucky has its strongest team yet under sixth-year head coach Mark Stoops. Smart particularly praised the experience of the Wildcats, especially on defense, where eight seniors are listed as starters.
But will that experience get Kentucky over the hump against Georgia? It’s any one’s guess, but both teams are aware of what’s on the line in Lexington, Kentucky.
“The whole program, everybody involved knows what’s at stake, especially with a week like this,” McGhee said. “A great SEC opponent like this in Kentucky, explosive offense, playing well on defense, so everybody knows what has to be done and what we’ve got to do this week.”