The football Wildcats are now in a survival mode this week after a critical 17-10 victory over South Carolina last Saturday night. The home win over the Gamecocks, one of UK’s beatable opponents on the schedule, gave the Cats a .500 record of 2-2 with eight games left in the 2016 campaign.
That means one-third of the season is over and the struggling Wildcats still have a chance for a decent year. But they don’t have much room for margin of error because of their season-opening setback to formidable Southern Miss, which was listed as a winnable game for the Big Blue Nation.
A quick look at Kentucky’s remaining slate shows only four beatable opponents: Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Missouri and Austin Peay.
Well, Georgia, after a blowout loss to Ole Miss, arguably could be on the winnable list, too, for UK.
And the matchups against Top 11 foes Alabama, Tennessee and Louisville are all on the road and appear to be out of reach for the Wildcats unless there is a “Big Blue” miracle with the help of a football god who decides to smile on the long-suffering program. Perhaps the Cats will come up with a respectable performance –- not a blowout loss — against the powerful teams and declare a moral victory.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said his team needs to focus only on themselves when meeting a loaded opponent like Alabama.
“I want to see us continue to worry about us, continue to progress and continue to improve in the areas we need to improve,” Stoops said earlier this week as his team faces the top-ranked Crimson Tide Saturday (7 p.m., ESPN).
Like most folks, Stoops said he admires and respects Alabama’s tradition-rich program.
“Top to bottom,” he said. “You know they are led by arguably the best coach (Nick Saban) of all time in college football and it starts there.
“But what impresses you about them is their whole program. Top to bottom they do things right. They are extremely talented and they are very well coached. So, there is a lot to talk about on what they do right.”
After the Crimson Tide game, Kentucky hosts Vanderbilt on Oct. 8 (4 p.m., SEC Network). The usually-hapless Commodores haven’t been that kind to the Wildcats over recent years since Rich Brooks retired from UK after the 2009 Music City Bowl campaign. UK has a 2-4 record in the past six years, including a 21-17 loss in Nashville in 2015.
Going into this weekend’s action, third-year coach Derek Mason has seen his Vanderbilt club improve to a 2-2 mark after an overtime win over Western Kentucky in Bowling Green. The Commodores dropped to South Carolina 13-10 in the season opener and lost to Georgia Tech 38-7.
Vandy’s other victory came against Middle Tennessee State 47-24. That means both of VU’s wins came against the schools from the Conference USA.
Before Vandy, whose total offense and total defense both rank next to last (13th) in the SEC, travels to Lexington, it has a home date with Florida this weekend.
After battling the Commodores on Oct. 8, the Wildcats will enjoy the following weekend off and face coach Dan Mullen’s 2-2 Mississippi State squad on Oct. 22. Like Vanderbilt, MSU hasn’t been very kind to the Wildcats in recent years. Mullen, in fact, is 7-0 against UK.
Even without their star QB Dak Prescott, who is now with the Dallas Cowboys, the Bulldogs won’t be all that easy to overcome. MSU has defeated South Carolina 27-14 and UMass 47-35 while suffering setbacks to South Alabama 21-20 and LSU 23-20.
And the Wildcats travel to Missouri during Halloween weekend. The Tigers, with new coach Barry Odom at the helm, can be explosive. The 2-2 Tigers have scored 79 points against Delaware State and 61 vs. Eastern Michigan in their only victories. They lost to West Virginia 26-11 on the road and Georgia 28-27 at home.
Last season, Kentucky stopped then-No. 25 Missouri 21-13. It was UK’s first victory over a ranked foe since 2010.
Austin Peay, an Ohio Valley Conference member, should be an easy W for the Wildcats. The Governors are 0-3 with losses to ex-UK assistant Neal Brown’s Troy squad 57-17, Tennessee Tech (41-7) and Eastern Illinois (56-35). According to Jeff Sagarin’s College Football Ratings this week in USA Today, Austin Peay is No. 233 (out of 253 teams).
Kentucky, by the way, is No. 81 in Sagarin’s poll, behind its other beatable opponents Vanderbilt (No. 72), Mississippi State (No. 52) and Missouri (No. 48).
As mentioned earlier, Georgia could be a beatable foe, especially at the friendly confines of the Commonwealth Stadium. First-year mentor Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are 3-1 and still ranked at No. 25 in this week’s AP poll. However, they have not blown out anyone this fall with victories over North Carolina (33-24), Nicholls (26-24) and Missouri (28-27). Their 45-14 loss to Ole Miss, which is now ranked No. 16, last Saturday was embarrassing.
With the exception of 2014, when No. 17 Georgia dominated Kentucky 63-31, the Cats in recent years have been pretty competitive with the Dogs, who were ranked at the time. For instance, UK dropped to eighth-ranked UGA 24-13 in 2007 in Athens. Also, the Wildcats lost 42-38 to No. 14 Georgia in 2008 in Lexington. In 2011 and 2012, Georgia, rated No. 13 both times, prevailed with 19-10 and 29-24 victories over Kentucky.
The odd reason I’m slightly hopeful about the Georgia game at home is the fact I have personally witnessed a Wildcat upset of No. 11 Georgia, then-coached by legendary Vince Dooley, in 1988 when coach Jerry Claiborne’s Cats won 16-11 in Lexington. I was on the field taking photos and I especially remember capturing one of Dooley talking with the reporters on the field after the stunning showdown.
Nevertheless, because of that ugly season opener against Southern Miss, it is not going to be a breeze for the Wildcats to notch four more wins to finish with a 6-6 mark and a likely bowl bid.
But if UK improves throughout the year, it has a fair chance to make a respectable showing in 2016. And the Big Blue Nation faithful is still hopeful, too.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.