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JOE COX: Celebrating Big Blue Birthday & Forecasting SEC Weekend Matchups


By Joe Cox

Contributing Editor

Kentucky gave a gallant effort for about four hours in The Swamp at Gainesville on Saturday night before in triple overtime, the forces of college football restored the order to what we know and loathe, as the Gators won a 36-30 heartbreaker. More on that will follow, but first, let’s talk about how we got here.

I turned 34 years old yesterday, which means it was almost 20 years ago to the day that a family friend bought me a birthday ticket to Commonwealth Stadium to see Kentucky take on South Carolina in my first UK football game—well, my first UK anything. I was always a sports fan—I cut my teeth on Major League Baseball, the NBA, and gradually the NFL. Like most everyone else in the Commonwealth, I had been a rabid follower of Rick Pitino’s first UK basketball teams. But I was stung on a pretty September night in 1994 and have never looked back

My children, ages 5 and 2, gave me my birthday gifts yesterday--a UK drinking glass and a sheet of football stickers. They know me. When we have breakfast in the morning, my kids sometimes eat Pop Tarts with MLB teams on them. I tell them a story about the teams. I’ve told them of my beloved Cubs and the curse of the billy goat, or the Dodgers and how they were always so close but never won a title, until they finally broke through in 1955. Some day, when they’re old enough, I’ll tell them about Kentucky football. What will I tell them about Saturday night? Well, that it stinks to lose. Even when you play hard—and well—it still stinks to lose. But I will assure them that like I do with the Cubs, like the good people of Brooklyn did for the Dodgers—I still believe. There will be a day. As the great Bob Dylan once wrote, “Someday, everything is going to be different/When I pain my masterpiece.” Amen.

Kentucky fought and scratched and clawed their behinds off Saturday night. Patrick Towles took what Florida would give him, and ended up with a gambling game plan built on deep balls on the sideline. Sometimes it worked (hello there, Garrett Johnson), sometimes it didn’t. But it gave Kentucky a chance. Austin MacGinnis white-knuckled home a 51-yarder off the upright to put UK into overtime, but finally missed one kick in the third OT after connecting on three previous tries. Gutty game anyway for the kid.

The Kentucky defense gutted out a tough effort as well. Nate Willis had a nice pick, Za’Darius Smith had the game I’d been awaiting, and Jason Hatcher showed signs of big things to come.

After three games, UK is where I thought they would be: 2-1. Vanderbilt looks like a badly prepared middle school team and UL-Monroe doesn’t seem to be much better. Kentucky looks like a good bet to arrive at mid-season at 4-2 (and if the South Carolina that couldn’t stop Kenny Hill shows up in Lexington, maybe even 5-1). At that pace, UK would need to win one of the murders’ row four of Georgia, LSU, Missouri, and Mississippi State. My money would be on one of the latter two. That would get them to the last two games vs. UT and at UofL with five wins in their pocket. I still think the path to a bowl goes through one of those games—although I’d love to see USC and Mizzou, or Mizzou and Miss. St. be gutted by UK.

But it’s out there for the taking. And while I don’t believe in moral victories, I do believe in a team that gives me, for the first time since probably 2010, some reason to believe. The climb to the top of the hill is long and hard. But it’s moving onward. And the day is coming when UK will be on top. Bet on it. And if I’m 34 or 54 or 74 or 94, I’ll be celebrating.

UPSIDES

Game ball goes to Patrick Towles. He threw for 369 yards and three scores at Florida, and looked like a seasoned field general, instead of a wild-eyed kid making his first road start. His stats could easily have been bigger, as some drops killed promising UK possessions. Still, three games in, have seen nothing not to like about this guy.

Freshman wide receiver Garrett Johnson has size and skill, but he had three catches for 25 yards total in the first two games. Saturday, he changed the momentum of the game when he went up and grabbed a jump ball from Towles, and contorted himself to stay in bounds, shed two UF defenders, and score on the play. Johnson added another score, and six catches, 154 yards, and 2 TDs is a fine day’s work for the young man.

The last game ball should be split between two guys I called out last week—Za’Darius Smith had 11 tackles and was in on a sack of Florida’s Jeff Driskel. Austin MacGinnis hit three crucial field goals, and despite the fact that he finally missed, did a good job.

DOWNSIDES

Twenty eight of ‘em.

Kentucky’s running game couldn’t get untracked. UK had 2.5 yards per carry, and Towles was sacked only twice, so he can’t be blamed. Braylon Heard was close to breaking big runs several times, but couldn’t quite get enough push. Stanley “Boom” Williams had the play of the night with a 25-yard reception, which was a dump pass that he reversed field on and ran past the entire Florida defense for the opening score of overtime. Whether the answer is more “Boom”, or Heard getting a chance between a hopefully finally complete UK offensive line, the running game has to pick it up.

Fred Tiller didn’t have a bad game, but his 11 tackles are kind of outweighed by the second half Jeff Driskel pass that hit him in the bread-basket. UK led 10-6 and Tiller had at least a long return if not a score in his sights. Instead, he juggled the pass right to the intended Florida receiver, who hauled in about a 30 yard gain. These are the kind of plays that make people think UK football is cursed. And they need to stop.

WHERE ARE WE—SEC POWER RANKINGS

I was fighting a head cold this weekend, so I saw plenty of football. I’m very confused, to be honest.

--Alabama (3-0). They’re No. 1 until somebody shows me that they aren’t. Sims looking like he may stay as the starting QB, and they beat nobody Southern Miss by 40. Saturday, it’s Florida.

--Auburn (2-0). Had an off week. Not really sure how good they are, but Kansas State on Thursday night will be worth watching.

--LSU (3-0). I jump A&M here, because while I still know that LSU had no quarterback whatsoever, they held UL-Monroe (which beat Wake Forest in week one, remind you) to under 100 yards of offense for the game. With a defense like that, they can run and kick their way to victory. Passing is optional.

--Texas A&M (3-0). We all know about the offense, but the defense let Rice go for almost 500 yards. LSU, Auburn, and Alabama will find some ways to at least slow Hill, and if they can score at will on A&M, then it won’t amount to much for the Aggies.

--Georgia (1-1). They probably weren’t as good as I thought they were when the beat Clemson. I hope they’re not as bad as I think they were when they lost to South Carolina.

--Ole Miss (3-0). Solid win for the Rebels. They’re better than their final record will indicate, but the West is miserable.

--Missouri (3-0). It’s a weird Missouri team, but they just might back into the SEC East again, if Georgia continues to play like they met each other five minutes before the game started.

--Mississippi State (3-0). See above. Much like Missouri, they’d win nine games in the East. In the west, it’s more like seven, and that won’t be easy.

--Florida (2-0). They’re talented, but that offense is still kind of suspect. I think they’re a middle of the road SEC team that will win just enough games to keep Will Muschamp’s job. Fine with me on that front.

--South Carolina (2-1). I don’t know. They could win the SEC East or they could go 6-6. Neither would shock me. Saturday’s game with Vandy won’t tell us anything.

--Arkansas (2-1). I pity the team that falls behind Arkansas. They will pound the ball down people’s throats. If their defense can play well enough, that might be enough to upset some of the ‘better’ teams in the West.

--Kentucky (2-1). A week to heal can’t hurt.

--Tennessee (2-1). Yes, they lost by 24. Not sure if they’re actually any good.

--Vanderbilt (1-2). This might be the worst SEC team I’ve ever seen. Should’ve lost to UMass on Saturday.

WHERE ARE WE GOING

Team Bye heads into Commonwealth, and the ‘Cats will have a week to heal up, practice up, and get ready to thump Vanderbilt mercilessly.

MY OTHER (COMPLETELY CLUELESS) SEC PREDICTIONS

Last week, I took a bit of a dive. I was 10-1. Thanks, Georgia. So I’m 21-1 so far, which still really is unimpressive, because a monkey typing Shakespeare would be about 19-3. Not my sharpest week, as the closest I got was my 45-7 prediction for Miss. State over South Alabama. It was 35-3, so not too far off. The worst? Well, I had Georgia by 20. Yikes. I had Florida by 21, too. That’s some crow I’m glad to eat.

Week 4 Guesses:

Auburn 38, Kansas State 24

Georgia 41, Troy 10

Alabama 35, Florida 7

Texas A&M 56, SMU 3

Missouri 44, Indiana 17

Arkansas 45, Northern Illinois 20

LSU 24, Mississippi State 10

South Carolina 42, Vanderbilt 6

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