By Jamie H. Vaught
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- In 1997 we had Heisman Trophy candidate Peyton Manning of No. 5 Tennessee and Tim Couch of unranked Kentucky in a passing shootout, tossing for nearly 1,000 passing yards at Commonwealth Stadium.
In 2014 we had Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott of top-ranked Mississippi State and Patrick Towles of unranked Kentucky in a combined passing/running attack, gunning for nearly 800 yards at Commonwealth Stadium.
As you know, the Heisman candidates unfortunately prevailed as the Wildcats lost both times.
But last Saturday's SEC showdown, nevertheless, was a very good measurement of what the rebuilding Wildcats, now 5-3, can do in the near future after a very respectable showing in a 45-31 setback to Mississippi State.
And Towles is becoming a star on the big SEC stage. We could be hearing his name as a Heisman candidate down the road.
Coach Dan Mullen's Bulldogs really had to fight the scrapping Cats to stay unbeaten after seven games.
"They made plays all day long on both sides of the football and I don’t know if people are giving Mark (Stoops) enough credit for what he’s doing here with this outfit and what type of team Kentucky is," said the likeable Mullen, who now has a coaching record of 6-0 against UK. "You give them a lot of credit. Their quarterback carried it 23 times and threw for 390 yards; one heck of a day by him."
By the way, MSU has won five straight games in Lexington, which is a school record of consecutive road wins in a SEC stadium away from Starkville.
While Prescott continues to build up his impressive resume, gaining 304 yards via his passing and running attacks against Kentucky, Towles had a career day, passing and running for a total of 466 yards, including 76 net yards in rushing (for a 3.3 average).
Asked about his Heisman chances, Prescott said, "We are 7-0 (overall), 4-0 in the SEC, and that's all I'm worried about."
The 6-5, 238-pound Towles said he was pretty confident about keeping up with the Bulldogs in the CBS-TV showdown.
"We knew that we could play with anybody in the country," said Towles, a sophomore from Fort Thomas, Ky. "I’m not sure the country knew that we could play with anybody in the country but we fought like I knew we would. We just didn’t make enough plays."
Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who led both squads with 7.5 tackles, said Towles "is a great quarterback and he stood up big and put on a show. I just hope Pat just keeps doing that."
Dupree, though, couldn't help but think about his team's missed opportunities to come out on top.
"It's really frustrating," said the senior from Irwinton, Ga. "We had a lot of chances to win but sometimes we got a little carried away. We just have to get corrected for next week and just make sure we finish in the SEC East."
Stoops agrees that MSU is the nation's No. 1 team.
"We got beat by a better football team," he said. "Give Mississippi State credit. They're a very good, strong, tough football team. Deserving of the No. 1 ranking that they have."
While Stoop acknowledged some missed opportunities to beat MSU, he added that "it's time to get back to work and go prepare for the next game."
As Kentucky looks ahead to its next matchup, a Saturday afternoon date with SEC Eastern Division rival Missouri in Columbia, Stoops said his team will be ready. The coach added he really likes his squad's fighting attitude.
"Our team is strong," he said. "They're strong in the mind. They're strong in the heart. We're not perfect. We're a work in progress. I have no problem with their attitude or what they're doing. These are pretty good football teams we're playing (against)."
Speaking of Missouri, which is now eligible for a bowl berth after improving its record to 6-2 in defeating Vanderbilt 24-14 last Saturday, the Tigers are somewhat hard team to figure out on paper. They lost to Indiana 31-27 at home. While Missouri was blanked by Georgia 34-0 over two weeks ago, it bounced back and stopped Florida 42-13 at the Swamp.
It's a winnable game for the Wildcats, but it won't be real easy, though.
"(Stoops) is a good coach, and they’ve got a good football team," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel told the reporters after the victory over Vandy. "It’s going to be another SEC game here. They’re all tough."
On the importance of being bowl-eligible, Pinkel, who is in his 14th year at the Tiger helm, said, "If that’s the case, then Missouri people have a very, very short memory. We are bowl-eligible, that means a lot. We never talk about it because our expectation level is a lot higher than that. But six wins in October is good."
The UK-Missouri contest will be seen on the SEC Network, beginning at 4:00 p.m.
My fearless forecast: UK by 7.
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After stopping in Lexington this past weekend, the SEC Network's traveling pre-game show, SEC Nation, will be at the Kentucky-Missouri game. The panelist consisting of Tim Tebow, Marcus Spears, Paul Finebaum, host Joe Tessitore and reporter Kaylee Hartung will discuss the SEC games and bring the sights and sounds of the tailgating scene.
Tebow, a former Heisman Trophy-winning QB from Florida, was a popular figure in Lexington this past weekend. He also watched the Kentucky-MSU game and posed with many fans for pictures at Commonwealth Stadium.
While in Lexington, Tebow said on the show that the Gator fans should stop booing and support embattled Florida coach Will Muschamp.
Unrated Florida (3-3) meets ninth-ranked Georgia (6-1) in heated rivalry matchup on Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville (3:30 p.m., CBS). Muschamp and his Gators have lost three consecutive games to the Bulldogs in the series.
And the Gator Nation, obviously, won't stop booing if Florida drops to UGA again.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of the growing KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.