ATHENS, Ga. -- The Georgia Bulldogs are on the verge of their first appearance in the SEC championship game since 2005, but coach Mark Richt intends to make sure his players understand that they still must take their next opponent, slumping Kentucky, seriously.
The Bulldogs (8-2, 6-1 SEC) will get to represent the SEC East in the Georgia Dome only if they beat the Wildcats, so this is no time to lose focus.
"I think they'll all understand that real quick if they don't. I'm sure most of them do," Richt said. "We've got to play Kentucky."
Kentucky (4-6, 1-5) has lost six of its last eight games, including a 38-8 loss last Saturday at Vanderbilt, but the Wildcats have typically given Georgia fits in recent years.
The Bulldogs know it would be unwise to chalk in the Kentucky game as an automatic victory and look toward a spot in the league championship game ahead of time.
"It's still an SEC game," Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. "It's a very important game for us. We're one step away from getting back to Atlanta, which is our No. 1 dream, so we've got to work hard in this week of practice and get prepared."
Nonetheless, the Bulldogs -- ranked 13th in the new Associated Press Top 25 poll, 14th in the BCS and 15th in the coaches poll -- are 28.5-point favorites as they prepare to meet injury-riddled Kentucky.
"It's definitely a huge challenge with Georgia playing for the Eastern championship," said Kentucky coach Joker Phillips, who discussed injuries to six different players on his Sunday teleconference. "We're now banged up and taking an even younger team on the road."
Richt said nose guard Kwame Geathers should be available against Kentucky after leaving in the second quarter of the Auburn game with a sprained ankle.
He said he does not expect receiver Rantavious Wooten to return to the field this season. Wooten, who has two catches for 39 yards in three games this season, has struggled to recover from a concussion sustained in a car wreck the week of the Georgia-Ole Miss game.
"At this point, I would not imagine him playing the rest of the year," Richt said. "That's just my guess."
Phillips said Max Smith will start at quarterback against Georgia and that Morgan Newton, who missed the last two games with an ankle injury after starting seven of the first eight, will be available in an emergency.
Smith was 15-for-31 for 179 yards and a touchdown against Vanderbilt.
"Right now he can't really push off of his ankle the way we'd like to," Phillips said of Newton, "but he can finish the game, go in and hand the ball off and throw some of the routes that we like to run."
Phillips said safety Martavius Neloms (ankle) is doubtful, safety Winston Guy (shoulder) is questionable, and linebacker Ridge Wilson (shoulder) should be able to play.
He added that offensive lineman Chandler Burden, who has started nine of the Wildcats' 10 games, should be able to play with a cast on his injured thumb.
Breaking it down
Richt said Georgia's graduate assistants have likely started collecting video footage of LSU, Alabama and Arkansas -- the teams the Bulldogs could face in the SEC championship game if they beat Kentucky this weekend -- but the Bulldogs still must focus on remaining matchups against Kentucky and Georgia Tech.
"There's probably been a lot of film broken down over the years that you never got to because either you didn't make it or one of those teams didn't make it," Richt said. "So we definitely need to be focusing on this game this weekend.
"And let me reiterate, there's a difference between having film in your system and breaking it down," he added. "We're playing Auburn, Auburn plays LSU; well, we've got some LSU film. ... But no one's breaking down any Western Division teams right now, I can tell you that."
Freshman tight end Jay Rome is balancing his football schedule with time spent as a walk-on with the Bulldogs' basketball team, but there is a juggling act involved for the coaches, as well.
Because of the NCAA rules governing the hours players can spend on athletics-related activity per week, the two coaching staffs must stay in touch with Georgia's compliance office to make sure Rome is not overburdened.
"If he played tonight in basketball, then we'd have to make sure that one day this week he'd be off completely," Richt said on his Sunday teleconference, minutes before Georgia's basketball tipoff against Bowling Green. "And if he ends up dressing out tonight, which I think he is, then Friday this week would end up being his day off. So we're just staying in communication with compliance and with basketball and with us and just making sure we keep him within the rules."
Rome, who is redshirting in football, made his Georgia basketball debut in the final minute of last Friday's win against Wofford, but did not play Sunday against Bowling Green.
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.