After mostly breezing through the first nine games of the season, Kirby Smart suddenly finds himself facing a crisis of confidence with his Georgia football team heading into Saturday’s home game against Kentucky.

The Bulldogs were dominated and embarrassed at Auburn last week, losing 40-17. It could even be argued that it really wasn’t that close with the Tigers shutting down Georgia’s rushing attack,  holding both Nick Chubb and Sony Michel to fewer than 30 yards rushing.                                  .

“It’s a wake-up call for some of those guys. Auburn had a much better game plan and they beat us physically,” Smart said. “Our job is to respond the right way and move on now to Kentucky. You don’t want Auburn to beat you twice. You get ready to go play Kentucky.”

Before that loss to Auburn, Georgia’s only scare had been a 20-19 win at Notre Dame in Week Two. Other than that, the Bulldogs had won their other eight games by an average of nearly 28 points.

The good news for Smart and his players is that Georgia (9-1, 6-1) already has clinched a spot in the Dec. 2 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta against either Auburn or Alabama.

Kentucky (7-3, 4-2) began the season 5-1 to put itself in contention for the SEC East title, but Mark Stoops’ team since has lost its footing in the past month with a pair of high-scoring losses to the SEC’s Mississippi contingent. The Wildcats were embarrassed 45-7 at Mississippi State and then lost 37-34 at home to Ole Miss.

The 38-point domination by the SEC’s other Bulldogs gives Stoops something to remind his players just how desperate they were to get a bad performance out of their system. That remains the only game the Wildcats have lost this season by more than three points.

Kentucky is coming off its biggest win, a 44-21 romp at Vanderbilt.

The matchup against Georgia will feature the one-two punch of Chubb and Michel, who are both on track to enjoying 1,000 yard seasons, and Kentucky’s Benny Snell, who already has surpassed that milestone.

Chubb has 894 yards and 10 touchdowns and Michel has rushied for 731 yards and nine scores. The powerful Snell, meanwhile, has scored 15 rushing TDs and has gained 1,013 yards.

But Smart is just as interested in how freshman quarterback Jake Fromm responds to the loss to Auburn.

While he passed for 184 yards against the Tigers,  Fromm only completed 13 of 28 passes and was under pressure the entire game. He was sacked four times and lost 33 yards on five rushes.

“If he showed anything it was that he can move in the pocket,” said Smart. “At the end of the day, I thought Jake played well. He played hard and made some good decisions.”

 IN THE SPOTLIGHT

(All times Central)

Mercer (5-5) at Alabama (10-0), Saturday 11 a.m. CT, SEC Network

UL-Monroe (4-5) at Auburn (8-2) Saturday 11 a.m. CT, ESPN2

Mississippi State (7-3) at Arkansas (4-6), Saturday 11 a.m. CT. CBS

Kentucky (7-3) at Georgia (9-1), Saturday 2:30 p.m. CT, CBS

Wofford (9-1) at South Carolina (7-3), Saturday 3 p.m., CT, SEC Network

UAB (7-3) at Florida (3-6), Saturday 3 p.m. CT, SEC Network

LSU (7-3) at Tennessee (4-6), Saturday 6 p.m. CT, ESPN

Texas A&M (6-4) at Mississippi (5-5), Saturday 6 p.m. CT, ESPN2

Missouri (5-5) at Vanderbilt (4-6), Saturday 6:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network

FAB FIVE

  1. Alabama (10-0, 7-0): Last Week – Won, at Mississippi State, 31-24. The Impact – When the Tide needed to make stops or big plays, they were up to the task. No word on whether Nick Saban sent Gus Malzahn a ‘Thank You’ note for Auburn’s upset of Georgia. Injuries are becoming a concern for ’Bama’s defense. But that won’t be a problem this week against Mercer, even if the Bears did give Auburn a tussle early in the season.
  2. Auburn (8-2, 6-1): Last Week – W, Georgia, 40-17. The Impact – Gus Malzahn’s squad was impressive as Jason Stidham threw three TD passes and Kerryon Johnson rushed for 167 yards in rout of Georgia. But just as impressive was the defensive effort, sacking Georgia QB Jake Fromm four times and shutting down the Bulldogs’ rushing attack.
  3. Georgia (9-1, 6-1): Last Week – L, at Auburn, 40-17. The Impact – Georgia went nowhere on offense, gaining only 46 yards rushing as Auburn kept Nick Chubb and Sony Michel under wraps. Still, as SEC East champs, Kirby Smart’s squad will play for SEC title on Dec. 2 against either Auburn or Alabama. But first Kirby Smart has to get his team back on track in home games against Kentucky and rival Georgia Tech.
  4. Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3): Last Week – L, Alabama, 31-24. The Impact – Dan Mullen’s overachievers had Crimson Tide in trouble, but let  them off the hook. The loss to ’Bama ended a four-game win streak for the Bulldogs but they can possibly finish with nine W’s.
  5. LSU (7-3, 4-2): Last Week – W, Arkansas, 33-10. The Impact – Despite three losses in 10 games, including that stunning toe-stumper at home against Troy, Ed Orgeron has a chance to guide the Tigers to nine wins and a New Year’s Day bowl. Beating Tennessee should be a cinch this week before LSU finishes at home against the Aggies. Former Purdue QB Danny Etling could finish his split college career with more than 5,000 yards passing and 40-plus TD passes.

THE PACK

6. South Carolina (7-3, 5-3): Last Week – W, Florida, 28-20. The Impact – Who would have predicted the Gamecocks would have eight wins before facing Clemson next week? That will be the case if Will Muschamp’s squad can shut deal with Wofford’s option attack and Jake Bentley can avoid the interceptions while producing touchdowns instead of field goals. Bentley has passed for more than 2,200 yards and 14 touchdowns but he’s been intercepted nine times. Turnovers against the Terriers, ranked seventh in the FCS poll, would just be inviting trouble.

7. Kentucky (7-3, 4-3): Last Week – W, at Vanderbilt, 44-21. The Impact – Yes, it’s basketball season, but UK fans should still be paying attention to Mark Stoops’ footballers. The Wildcats won their seventh game in dominating fashion and finish up with marquee matchups at Georgia and at home against Louisville. Only a sophomore, Benny Snell Jr. has career totals of 28 touchdowns rushing and more than 2,100 yards.

8. Texas A&M (6-4, 3-3): Last Week – W, New Mexico, 55-14. The Impact – Can Kevin Sumlin get off the hot seat if the Aggies finish with two more wins? Probably not, but he’ll definitely be sent packing if he loses the next two. That means his fate may be in the hands of sophomore  Nick Starkel, who tossed four TD passes last week after having just thrown three in previous three starts.

9. Mississippi (5-5, 2-4): Last Week – W, Lafayette-Louisiana, 50-22.  The Impact – Taking a break from the SEC, QB Jordan Ta’amu took the opportunity to pad his stats with more than 400 yards passing and a total of five touchdowns, including two rushing. Still, even if they reach six wins, self-imposed sanctions will keep the Rebels out of a bowl game.

10. Missouri (5-5, 2-4):  Last   Week – W,  Tennessee, 50-17.  The Impact – Two of the Tigers’ blowout victories in this four-game win streak came against non-conference foes Idaho and UConn, but you still have to give Barry Odom credit for turning around a team that had lost five in a row. Although the Tigers finish on the road, they need to win just one of last two games to become bowl eligible.

11. Arkansas (4-6, 1-5):  Last  Week – L, at LSU, 33-10.  The Impact –  Arkansas has fired AD Jeff Long and head coach Bret Bielema’s time in Fayetteville is near an end, too. Razorbacks momentarily stopped the bleeding with pair of one-point wins but last week’s loss at LSU ended any shot at finishing on the right side of the ledger. Interestingly, Long has been asked to continue serving on the College Football Playoff committee, suggesting he may be better at recognizing good teams instead of  coaches.

THE UNPROVEN

12. Tennessee (4-6, 0-6): Last Week – L, at Missouri, 50-17. The Impact – Vols fired Butch Jones and named Brady Hoke the interim boss with hopes of salvaging a bowl bid. But that’s not likely to happen, not after the UT players went through the motions in second half at Mizzou. Meanwhile, Jones will be paid $8 million not to coach in Knoxville – not a bad gig.

13. Florida (3-6, 3-5): Last Week – L, at South Carolina, 28-20. The Impact – Gators couldn’t get out of their own way against Gamecocks, losing fifth game in a row. Interim coach Randy Shannon could still get the Gators to finish strong with games against UAB and Florida State.

14. Vanderbilt (4-6, 0-6): Last Week – L, Kentucky, 44-21. The Impact – Remember when an unbeaten Vanderbilt was expected to put up a fight against Alabama in Nashville in Week 4? Derek Mason probably doesn’t either. The Commodores lost 59-0 to the Crimson Tide after only allowing 13 points in three games. Now they face a Mizzou team that has averaged scoring more than 53 points in last four games.

 Beard’s Picks

(Predicted winners in Bold Caps)

Mercer at ALABAMA

UL-Monroe at AUBURN

MISSISSIPPI STATE at Arkansas

Kentucky at GEORGIA

Wofford at SOUTH CAROLINA

UAB at FLORIDA

LSU at Tennessee

Texas A&M at MISSSISSIPPI

MISSOURI at Vanderbilt

LAST WEEK: 8-0

OVERALL: 69-16 (81.1)

Note: Each week during the college football season, I’ll be  updating how things are unfolding in the Big Ten by Wednesday, the SEC by Thursday and ACC by Friday.  

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