This year's Georgia Bulldogs have long since escaped the shadow of last season's national championship team.
After starting this season by humiliating Oregon 49-3 in Atlanta and opening Southeastern Conference play two weeks later with a 48-7 romp at South Carolina, the Bulldogs committed five turnovers over a two-game stretch that resulted in lackluster triumphs over Kent State (39-22) and Missouri (26-22).
The past five contests presented the meat of Georgia's league schedule, and the Bulldogs responded by waxing Auburn (42-10), Vanderbilt (55-0), Florida (42-20), Tennessee (27-13) and Mississippi State (45-19). Only this week's journey to Kentucky and next week's home game against Georgia Tech stand in the way of Kirby Smart becoming the first Georgia coach to guide the Bulldogs to consecutive undefeated regular seasons.
"We keep talking about re-centering, coming back to the purpose and what we started all this about," Smart said Monday afternoon in a news conference. "We did have the good fortune of not a lot of these guys were major parts of the run that we went on last year, so it was new for a lot of them. The energy and enthusiasm towards making a mark themselves and creating their own identity was the lead factor.
"It's about sustaining that now that we're getting in the fourth quarter. We're at the 15- or the 20-yard line trying to finish the regular season, and that has to be sustained. So far, they have had a good attitude, and they have approached each week independent of the previous."
No two opponents have been the same for the Bulldogs during this stretch run, as Tennessee's frenetic, up-tempo offense was followed by Mississippi State's "Air Raid" attack. Kentucky has the SEC's most deliberate, old-school approach headed by quarterback Will Levis and running back Chris Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, the 5-foot-11, 224-pound senior from McDonough, Georgia, was suspended the first four games this season but has rushed for 733 yards and 5.5 yards per carry in the six games since.
"He seeks and cherishes contact, and it's that time of year where you watch defenses across the country and people turn down contact," Smart said. "They turn down hits, and we make a point to try to show that to our guys that as the year goes, because the tackling gets worse and worse and worse. Are we going to be bit by that contagious bug of a lack of a willingness to thud and tackle people, especially a guy who loves it?
"He's one of the most physical runners I've seen, and it just seems like Kentucky always has that guy. Benny Snell was that way."
The Bulldogs will counter with the nation's No. 3 rushing defense that allows just 82.4 ground yards a game. When Georgia and Florida collided in Jacksonville on Oct. 29, the Gators were leading the nation with 6.4 yards per carry but rushed 34 times for 100 yards against the Bulldogs for a 2.9-yard clip.
"Our coaches always have a game plan, and we've just got to buy into it," Bulldogs senior defensive lineman Tramel Walthour said. "Kentucky is a really physical team that has played us tough the last three years. We want to be able to stop that run first and make them one-dimensional."
Georgia holds a 61-12-2 series advantage against the Wildcats and has won the past 12 meetings, which is the longest such streak in this lopsided matchup.
It's been a frustrating season for Georgia sophomore receiver Adonai Mitchell, who had five catches for 73 yards and a touchdown in the Oregon opener but has only played a handful of snaps since due to an ankle injury. The 6-4, 190-pounder from Missouri City, Texas, didn't make the trip to Starkville this past weekend.
"It's a pain-in-the-butt injury," Smart said, "and he didn't have an option to go do the tightrope surgery that (Tennessee receiver Cedric) Tillman got and (former Alabama quarterback) Tua (Tagovailoa) got. That wasn't an option, so it's been frustrating for him. He wants to get back.
"He actually got to do individual drills last week and did some things, but I don't know where he is this week because I haven't seen him yet. He was not where he could come out of breaks and do the things required to play receiver last week, and that's tough, so he stayed here."
Georgia is outscoring foes 95-9 in the first quarter and has yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown. ... Smart said sophomore defensive back Javon Bullard is dealing with a lower leg contusion but should play Saturday. ... The Bulldogs have lost fewer SEC regular-season games (five) since the start of the 2017 season than this year's preseason No. 6, Texas A&M, has lost this season. ... Next week's Georgia-Georgia Tech game will be a noon kickoff on ESPN, which will leave the Bulldogs without a home game at night this season.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org.