JOE COX: Wildcats Are Getting More Respect Despite Auburn Loss
For the sixth time in six games, UK football found itself in another game in which the margin of victory or defeat was one score. One more pass caught or batted away, one more yard gained on 3rd and 2, or one more tackle preventing a conversion—the line between victory and defeat for UK has been razor-thin.
Unfortunately, for the second time on the season, UK came up short, losing to Auburn 30-27 last weekend, and missing a golden opportunity to become a factor to the end of the SEC East race.
The “close loss” or “moral victory” card is one to be abolished from the UK deck. But at the same time, in a season where every game has gone down to the wire, it’s hard to be too distraught over a game when the ball didn’t quite bounce UK’s way. A bowl game still stands as a near-certainty and a seven- or eight-win season is still there for the taking. But what can we take away from the loss to Auburn?
Garrett Johnson had his career game, hauling in nine passes for 160 yards. Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was moved enough to tell Johnson after the game that he (Muschamp) had been a “dumb###” for failing to recruit Juice to Florida. Well, he was. And if Juice can make plays down the middle of the field like he did against Auburn, then the vertical passing game with Baker and Bone will be available…
Boom Williams was back in a big way. He scored two TDs, had a 60 yard run, and totaled 113 rushing yards on the day. He did drop a crucial pass late in the game, but UK with Boom is much more effective than UK without him.
Patrick Towles threw for 359 yards in the loss. He did throw one costly interception, but only some of the blame for that throw is on the quarterback. Towles isn’t always beloved by the UK fan base, but he makes plays and keeps the Wildcats in games—even if he could stand to be more consistent with his passes.
Kentucky’s special teams were brutal. Setting aside the last Auburn punt, when UK had eight players on the field to defend/return, UK was still awful. Landon Foster had a poor game punting, and with Austin MacGinnis still gimpy, walk-on Miles Butler struggled on kickoffs. An extra 10 or 15 yards on five or six plays made a huge difference in the outcome of the game.
Dorian Baker had a mediocre game. Baker made some nice grabs, but also drew two costly penalties with his blocking and failed to help Towles out on the costly red zone interception which may have decided the game. On roughly half of Towles’s interceptions this season, Baker has failed to fight his way back to the football to help his QB. He needs to start doing so, and to trim out some of the drops.
The broken leg of Melvin Lewis on the defensive line was a big downer. Big Matt Elam is now going to see time by necessity, and hopefully, he can help shore up the run defense without Lewis, who quietly was having a fine season.
WHERE ARE WE—SEC POWER RANKINGS
1. Alabama (6-1) I almost think Nick Saban wants to lose a game, just to get everybody else riled up. Alabama/LSU tickets, anyone? 2. LSU (6-0) Two things that are only semi-unrelated. UK will probably go to a bowl, and they don’t have to play against Leonard Fournette. 3. Texas A&M (5-1) Probably better than they played against Bama. They’d better be or their slide is just starting. 4. Florida (6-1) McElwain would get my vote for SEC Coach of the Year, so far. 5. Ole Miss (5-2) Yes, they lost to Memphis. Yes, they still hold the tiebreaker over Alabama in the West. 6. Georgia (5-2) They looked absolutely awful, but they did win. 7. Mississippi State (5-2) Probably better than Georgia, and we’ll see on Saturday. 8. Tennessee (3-3) Soft late schedule gets them this high. 9. Auburn (4-2) Nothing pretty from this bunch, but they’ll win six games or so. 10. Kentucky (4-2) A 7-5 season is still very doable, so chin up! 11. Missouri (4-3) Terrible offensively without Mauk (not that they were great with him). 12. Arkansas (2-4) Not very good really. 13. South Carolina (3-4) Whoever the head coach is, when it’s field goals instead of touchdowns, it’s losing in the SEC. 14. Vanderbilt (2-4) Long season.
WHERE ARE WE GOING
Starkville, Mississippi, aside from being probably the most boring stop in the SEC, is a spot that has sometimes been kind to the ‘Cats. MSU All-world QB Dak Prescott hopes to keep it from being that way on Saturday. Prescott’s 2015 stats: 1700 yards passing, 11 touchdowns, ZERO interceptions. He’s also rushed for 254 yards and four more scores. Perhaps even more impressive, on a team that is so dependent on Prescott, he has been sacked just nine times in seven games (that includes matchups with LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn).
Defensively, State is okay, but nothing more. They’ve forced only six turnovers in seven games. Defensive lineman A.J. Jefferson has four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss, and could cause UK some trouble. Every year, I consider the relatively small pile of resources at Dan Mullen’s disposal and think his team will fall back into mediocrity. And every year he doesn’t do it. Prescott will be the best QB Kentucky faces all season—by a wide margin.
Before the year, I picked UK to spring an upset in this game. That said, I picked them to leave Starkville with a 4-3 record. One of those two will come true—but I’m afraid it’s the second and not the first.
Mississippi State 27, UK 20
MY OTHER (COMPLETELY CLUELESS) SEC PREDICTIONS
A competent, but unexciting 5-2 week moves me to 45-14 on the season. I did pick Memphis over Ole Miss for a silly underdog game I participate in, but not for this column! Anyway, here are my guesses for week eight:
Auburn 31, Arkansas 27 Alabama 35, Tennessee 20 Missouri 14, Vanderbilt 13 LSU 42, Western Kentucky 21 Texas A&M 31, Ole Miss 28 Mississippi State 27, Kentucky 20
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.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