JOE COX: Kentucky Football Is Progressing Despite Heartbreaking Loss To Florida
Sometimes, progress hurts. Kentucky suffered a tough 14-9 loss to the Florida Gators that marks the 29th straight setback in the series. But take it from a guy who has seen more than his fair share of those 29 — heartbreak is progress. There was no heartbreak when it was 72-7. Or when it was 65-0. Or even under Rich Brooks when it was once 63-5. Heartbreak is progress, because for a Kentucky football program that has often been buried deep in the bottom of the SEC, a competitive loss that hurts is a huge step up from a non-competitive slobberknocker.
I’ve said it before and for one more week, I’ve got the license to say it again: the unholy trio of South Carolina, Florida, and Missouri set the tone for UK’s season. An 0-3 mark would’ve been death to the season. That’s been avoided. A 3-0 mark would’ve been a springboard to national recognition. That, unfortunately, is also now avoided. 1-2 would leave UK still scratching and hoping for a sixth win and a bowl game. 2-1 leaves UK in great position for a bowl, and looking in the eye of a seven- or even eight-win season.
The 25th-ranked (and incredibly underwhelming) Missouri Tigers are the opponent in the game that makes the trajectory clear. UK is somewhere in the realm of a 2-3 point favorite at home Saturday against the Tigers. The last time UK beat a ranked team was 2010 vs. South Carolina, and the last time UK was favored over a ranked team was 2007 vs. Tennessee.
Nobody wants to hear it after a loss, but this 2015 team could end up being like the ’07 team—a group that is competitive, spends some time in the Top 25, beats a traditional power in a bowl game, and generally advances the narrative of UK football.
Or it could be like the 2010 team that barely limps into a second-tier bowl game. Or it could be worse than that.
Before we guess the future, let’s remember the past.
The Kentucky fan base is much maligned, but it’s maligned by people who don’t know what they are talking about. Few schools in the country have fans as hungry to believe as Wildcat fans are. Six years removed from the last winning season, 39 years removed from an SEC title, ‘Cats fans believed that UK would win last Saturday. They brought that energy to a magical Commonwealth Stadium. UK lost, but as it usually isn’t, it wasn’t the fans’ fault.
The Wildcat defense in general was gritty, gutty, and tough as nails. To hold Florida under 250 yards and to 14 points (7 of which were a gift off of a tipped pick that started Florida at the UK 19) was remarkable. UK’s defensive backs are better than they’ve been since 2007, if not before. The front seven is still scrapping, but getting Ryan Flannigan back certainly can’t hurt.
Austin MacGinnis was back to being Mac Automatic. His three field goals scored UK’s nine points. It’s good to see Austin kicking well, but hopefully, the field goal game won’t be as necessary this week.
Patrick Towles had far from his best collegiate game. He overthrew some open receivers and sometimes held the ball too long. That said, Patty Ice is drawing a disproportionate share of the negative attention this week. I think he’ll rebound with a fine game. He’s a much tougher young QB than people realize.
Kentucky’s receiving corps was fairly pitiful against Florida. Dorian Baker dropped an open TD catch on the opening drive which probably was the difference in the game. Jeff Badet opened the second half with another drop. Kentucky can’t afford to shoot itself in the foot to win in the SEC, and the receivers were firing away on Saturday.
The biggest disappointment was the offensive line, which basically let Towles get beaten half to death. The line surrendered six sacks and left Towles running for his life all night. Florida’s ends and outside linebackers rushed around UK’s tackles all night. That has to change and fast.
WHERE ARE WE—SEC POWER RANKINGS
All we learned last week was that we didn’t know anything. Or at least, I didn’t.
1. Ole Miss (3-0) They were for real. 2. Georgia (3-0) Feeling great about picking the Dogs to win the SEC, by the way. Just sneaking under the radar. 3. LSU (2-0) If Leonard Fournette remains healthy, he’ll win a Heisman and LSU might just slip past Ole Miss. 4. Alabama (2-1) It’s still early. Don’t count out Alabama. 5. Texas A&M (3-0) Not entirely sure how good they are, but I said that about Ole Miss last week! 6. Florida (3-0) I don’t think they’re the sixth best team, but there’s a HUGE gap between A&M and the rest. 7. Missouri (3-0) I don’t think they’re the seventh best team, but who is any good? 8. Tennessee (2-1) I think they’ll lose to Florida, and have a 7-5 kind of season. Or they could blow out Florida and lay claim to the No. 6 spot. 9. Mississippi State (2-1) They’re better than Auburn, but will they win? 10. Auburn (2-1) They’re worse than Mississippi State, but trying out a new QB, and I think they’ll win. 11. Kentucky (2-1) Could jump about four spots with a solid win. 12. Arkansas (1-2) Ouch, Bret Bielema. 13. South Carolina (1-2) May lose to Vandy. Not a good situation. 14. Vandy (1-2) Got poor Derek Mason on the board!
WHERE ARE WE GOING
Missouri is 3-0 and is the No. 25 team in the nation. That’s good.
They beat Arkansas State by 7 and UConn by 3. That’s bad.
They’re used an athletic defense to win the SEC East as a new member of the conference. That’s good.
Most of those guys are in the NFL now. That’s bad.
A couple of predictions for this game—it’ll probably be low scoring and Missouri will do a lot of the little things they need to do to win.
QB Maty Mauk (yes, I spelled that right) leads the Tiger attack, such as it is. Mauk has completed just 52% of his passes this year, with 5 TDs and 4 INTs in competition against Southeast Missouri State, Arkansas State, and UConn. He is second on the team with 96 yards rushing.
The Missouri running game is led by RB Ish Witter, who averages 3.3 yards per carry and hasn’t yet found the end zone this season. Missouri has a solid, but not exceptionally exciting receiver corps.
Defensively, linebacker Kentrell Brothers has been everywhere. He has 42 tackles in three games, including three tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions. Defensive end Charles Harris leads the team in sacks with three.
Missouri has averaged 23 points per game so far, but has held opponents to just under 10 ppg. While Mizzou gains just 3.2 yards per carry, they hold opponents to 2.6, so the ground game is key. Mauk, much like Towles, isn’t always the prettiest QB, but he gets things done.
On paper, this looks like a defensive slugfest. I like to go against paper, but sometimes, it’s just right. I think one of UK’s wily old defensive backs will make a big play—maybe Blake McClain or J.D. Harmon. This looks like two evenly matched teams. But the crowd will pull the ‘Cats through.
UK 20, Missouri 17
MY OTHER (COMPLETELY CLUELESS) SEC PREDICTIONS
Well, that was fun. I was 21-3 in the first two weeks, but last week, I fell to 6-4. So it’s 27-7 overall, which sounds a lot better than it is, in light of all the FCS and lower-tier FBS teams that have faced SEC foes this season.
Maybe Week Four will be better.
Texas A&M 41, Arkansas 28 Auburn 17, Mississippi State 16 Kentucky 20, Missouri 17 South Carolina 31, Central Florida 28 LSU 45, Syracuse 10 Georgia 52, Southern 6 Florida 15, Tennessee 14 Alabama 49, UL-Monroe 10 Ole Miss 38, Vanderbilt 7
Joe Cox is contributing editor for Kysportsstyle360.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written four books involving UK sports, with the newest, The Kentucky Wildcat Fans’ Bucket List (with Ryan Clark) due on November 1, 2015. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org