Georgia beats Kentucky to clinch SEC East title

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Georgia is headed back to the SEC championship game.

The No. 6 Bulldogs clinched their second consecutive SEC East Division title with a 34-17 victory over No. 9 Kentucky on Saturday at Kroger Field, keeping their College Football Playoff hopes squarely intact.

Georgia (8-1, 6-1 SEC) has just one SEC game remaining — Nov. 10 vs. Auburn — then nonconference games against UMass and Georgia Tech to wrap up the regular season. The Bulldogs will seek their second consecutive SEC championship on Dec. 1 after winning the league title game in 2017.

“It’s huge,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said afterward. “It’s not been easy. It’s never easy. People, I think sometimes get spoiled when you win. These are good programs, these are good teams [in the SEC East]. Give our kids a lot of credit because their backs were against the wall two weeks in a row and they came out fighting.”

Smart was referencing his team’s two most recent victories, over rival Florida in Week 9 and Kentucky on Saturday, after questions and criticism surrounded the Bulldogs following their lone loss, a 36-16 defeat at the hands of LSU on Oct. 13.

Coming off an appearance in the national championship game last season — where Georgia fell to Alabama — expectations have been high for the Bulldogs despite their youth. They are the SEC’s youngest team, with 68.2 percent of their roster being either freshmen or sophomores.

Georgia toppled Kentucky (7-2, 5-2) on Saturday thanks in part to a season-best rushing performance. The Bulldogs compiled 331 rushing yards, both a team high this season and the most anyone has gained on the ground against Kentucky’s defense. The Wildcats hadn’t allowed a team to rush for 200 yards against them this season, and they were the only team in the FBS not to have allowed an opponent to score 21 points.

Two Georgia running backs surpassed the century mark: Sophomore D’Andre Swift finished with 156 yards and junior Elijah Holyfield racked up 115. They did that despite an offensive line that continues to deal with injuries and saw two players who started Saturday’s game — center Lamont Gaillard and right guard Cade Mays — both leave the game with ailments.

“They did a great job just mashing those guys up front,” starting quarterback Jake Fromm said of the offensive line. “[Kentucky] was physical and big, too. Even with our guys coming out and getting hurt, it was no big deal, next man up. That’s what I love about this team.”

The Georgia defense, which allowed 445 combined rushing yards to LSU and Florida, has also taken some criticism. But after limiting SEC rushing leader Benny Snell to just 73 yards on 20 carries and the Wildcats to just 310 yards overall, the Bulldogs felt they answered some questions there, too.

“[We were] hungry,” defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said. “All we heard was ‘Georgia doesn’t stop the run. Georgia doesn’t have any effective pass-rushers. Their D-line has zero sacks.’ It’s just disrespect, and we got tired of it.”

Earlier this week, Georgia debuted at No. 6 in the first playoff committee rankings of 2018, leaving it well in control of its postseason fate. The Bulldogs have gone unbeaten against SEC East opponents for the second consecutive season.

Even though they’ve clinched the division title, Smart isn’t concerned about his team resting on its laurels, especially with a rival up next.

“When it comes to Auburn, you know how it goes, they don’t like us,” Smart said. “We get it. They’ve got a really good football team. We respect Auburn. … We know that we’ll be in for a big game.”

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