ATHENS — Georgia has done all it can to reach the Southeastern Conference championship game. Even if it’s not enough, the No. 8 Bulldogs will certainly be content with their impressive turnaround this season.
A team that looked down and out a month ago clinched a tie for first in the SEC East with a 24-13 victory over 22nd-ranked Kentucky on Saturday, rallying from an early deficit, overcoming four turnovers and stifling one of the country’s highest-scoring teams.
"We surprised a lot of people," said defensive end Marcus Howard, who had two sacks. "This wasn’t a rebuilding year. This was a reloading year."
Knowshon Moreno ran for 124 yards and Kelin Johnson set up the go-ahead score with a blocked punt, helping the Bulldogs finish off a stirring, emotional run through the second half of their SEC schedule.
It looked as though Georgia would wrap up the East title when Tennessee fell behind 24-9 at home to Vanderbilt. But the Vols rallied for 16 points in the fourth quarter and a 25-24 victory that kept them in control of the East race.
Now, the Bulldogs have to pull for the team they just beat. If Tennessee wins at Kentucky next week, the Vols claims the East title on the tiebreaker; if not, Georgia is the division champ outright and advances to play top-ranked LSU in Atlanta on Dec. 1.
"We can’t control what Tennessee does," Georgia center Fernando Velasco said. "We did out part today. We’ll just have to see what happens."
The Bulldogs (9-2, 6-2 SEC) were hardly thinking championship after a 35-14 loss at Tennessee on Oct. 6. The following week, Vanderbilt was driving for a late touchdown that would have finished off Georgia’s season.
But the Bulldogs forced a fumble, marched the other way and kicked the winning field goal as time expired. They’ve looked unbeatable since then, scoring 40 points in three straight games — including wins over Florida and Auburn — then beating Kentucky with perhaps their best defensive effort of the season.
"Somehow, we turned it around," said Georgia’s Mark Richt, who became only the eighth major-college coach to win 70 games in his first seven seasons. "I’ll have to look back one of these days and figure out how it happened."
While the Wildcats (7-4, 3-4) already had been eliminated from a shot at playing in the SEC championship game, they were trying to win out and claim at least a share of the division crown.
But their potent offense, averaging more than 37 points a game, couldn’t take advantage of two interceptions and two fumbles by the Bulldogs.
Georgia’s defense saved the day, holding Kentucky to its lowest output of the season, despite spotting the Wildcats a 10-0 lead, and helping avenge a 24-20 loss in Lexington last season.
Andre Woodson, who came in with an SEC-leading 29 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions, had a rough afternoon against Georgia’s blitzing defense. He was 24 of 41 for 268 yards, managed only one TD pass and was sacked five times.
"Woodson is probably a first-round draft pick," Howard said. "But he wasn’t going to look like a first-rounder on our watch."
The Bulldogs came up with two huge stops in the fourth quarter of their home finale.
First, with the Wildcats facing third-and-4 at the Georgia 15, Howard sacked Woodson for an 18-yard loss that forced Lones Seiber to try a 51-yard field goal. It was wide and a little short. After Kentucky got it back again deep in its own territory, Geno Atkins dumped Rafael Little for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 with under 5 minutes to go.
Georgia got it back on a punt and pushed into field-goal range for Brandon Coutu, who wrapped up the win by hitting a 46-yarder with 2:09 left.
"When you get four turnovers, you have to put points on the board," Woodson said. "Our running game isn’t working, so they didn’t have to worry that. They could just drop back and protect the pass. They ran a lot of stunts, and we had a hard time picking them up."
One week after wearing black jerseys for the first time in an emotional win over Auburn, the Bulldogs returned to their usual home red and got off to another rousing start. Asher Allen returned the opening kickoff 82 yards to the Kentucky 18.
But Moreno fumbled inside the 10 and Jeremy Jarmon recovered for the Wildcats.
Kentucky built a 10-point lead before the first quarter was done. Woodson tossed a 36-yard touchdown pass to Keenan Burton, then Seiber connected from 31 yards after Matthew Stafford threw the first of his two interceptions.
That was Kentucky’s only points off a turnover.
Georgia made it 10-7 just before halftime when Moreno powered over from the 1. The freshman bounced back from that early mistake for his fifth straight 100-yard rushing game, the first Bulldogs back to accomplish that feat since Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker in 1982.
Georgia surged to its first lead after Johnson blocked Tim Masthay’s punt on the first possession on the second half, the Bulldogs falling on it at the Kentucky 19. Thomas Brown scored from the 1 to make it 14-10.
Stafford gave the Bulldogs some breathing room, catching the Wildcats off guard with a 10-yard touchdown run. He faked a handoff to Brown running to his left, then took off the other way and slid into the end zone.
Georgia closes the regular season next Saturday at Georgia Tech — then hopes to make a return trip to Atlanta the following week.
"We’ve done everything we can do," Richt said.