Your SEC East champion Kentucky Wildcats? Sure, it’s a couple of games (and some good luck) away, but never has early November brought suck a realistic hope to Lexington as it does right now. After a 35-21 win at Missouri that was more lopsided than the actual score, Kentucky is all but guaranteed a bowl and has a puncher’s shot at beating Georgia and Tennessee, and maybe even winning the SEC East.
How did Mark Stoops’s fourth Kentucky team move him from the coaching graveyard to the country club? Well, the key was right here—I spelled it out a year ago after the bewildering Vanderbilt loss.
That column -- which you can read in full right here at http://www.kysportsstyle.com/single-post/2015/11/19/JOE-COX-UK-Football-Has-Problems-Right-Now -- included my six points on things that Mark Stoops had to fix for Kentucky football to progress. The very first point I raised was:
1) Define what a Mark Stoops Kentucky team is about! What is the team’s identity? Three years are too long to not have a clue, but heading into the last two games of this year, that’s what we face. Does he center the team around defense? Not based on some of the games I’ve seen. Are we trying to be an Air Raid team? A power running team? A team that plays smart and wins with special teams? I have no clue even what the plan is, much less what the reality is. We should know the plan, at least vaguely. It took Hal Mumme one drive to reveal his plan. Three years are long enough to start it.
Identity is a funny thing, but in the game of football, it’s almost essential. And the injury to Drew Barker forced Kentucky to define itself in terms of leaning heavily on what it did well—running on the edge with Boom Williams and the up the middle with Benny Snell—and building a solid team around that framework.
The Missouri game was further proof of the durability of this new Kentucky attack. UK ran for 377 yards on Missouri, nearly setting a school record for an SEC game. QB Stephen Johnson passed for over 200 yards as well, and the retooled UK defense hit Missouri early and often. Not only did UK pick up its fourth win of the SEC season—and just Stoops’s second SEC road win—but it did without leaving the matter ever in doubt.
Next up is a deeply troubled 4-4 Georgia team. If Kentucky wins and Arkansas pulls a mild upset off on Florida in Fayetteville, UK will find itself at the top of the SEC East standings with just one game left to play. So how does this road go from here to there?
WHERE WE ARE
Again, this game was an all-around highlight for most of the UK team. The Cats moved the ball up and down the field at will—although a pair of turnovers cost them at least six more points—and likely 14, given the way the offense was chewing up yardage. Defensively, Mizzou scored 21 points, but seven came as a result of returning a putrid Grant McKinniss punt to the UK one-yard line. Another seven came on a bomb with four minutes to go in a long-decided game. Kentucky bewildered Mizzou’s high-tempo offense so thoroughly that the Tigers had to abandon an elevated speed just to escape the game alive.
With five wins and 0-8 FCS opponent Austin Peay coming to Lexington on November 19th, Kentucky has all but guaranteed a bowl appearance. Stumbling UGA and Tennessee programs in the next two weeks could make that a cinch, and perhaps improve the Wildcats’ bowl positioning—as well as that whole SEC East title thing mentioned earlier.
WHO THEY ARE
Georgia is an opponent who many thought UK could upset in the preseason. I was not so sure. Stud RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are the kind of backs who have given UK fans nightmares. But now, they’ve both been badly outplayed by UK’s own running backs. Talented UGA freshman QB Jacob Eason has a big arm—but his stats are generally behind Kentucky QB Stephen Johnson’s modest numbers.
Georgia has done a good job in run defense—allowing just 109.8 rushing yards per game—but first year head coach Kirby Smart hasn’t exploited those abilities enough to win many games. UGA was most impressive in the season opener against North Carolina, but the Bulldogs have lost to Vanderbilt, and struggled to get past Nicholls State and Missouri, among others.
Last week, Georgia lost 24-10 to Florida in a game where the Bulldog defense was very solid, but the offense was awful, and the special teams were poor.
WHAT TO EXPECT
For most of my life—well, for most of its history—being a UK football fan has been about hoping in spite of the odds. This team makes hoping feel more like a guarantee than a guess. Georgia is good at stopping the run, so Kentucky probably can’t chew up yardage like they have over the past two weeks. But Georgia’s offense—here’s the payoff—has no identity. There’s nothing that UGA hangs their hat on, and that isn’t the case in Lexington anymore. The better team—not the most talented team, but the BETTER team—wins this game.
Kentucky 28, Georgia 21
AROUND THE CONFERENCE
My current power rankings.
Texas A&M (7-1)
Ole Miss (3-5)
South Carolina (4-4)
Mississippi State (3-5)
58-18 is the mark for the season. Here’s the best guesses for this week:
Auburn 42, Vanderbilt 10
Ole Miss 38, Georgia Southern 20
Texas A&M 49, Mississippi State 24
Arkansas 28, Florida 27
South Carolina 27, Missouri 21
Tennessee 42, Tennessee Tech 7
Kentucky 28, Georgia 21
Alabama 35, LSU 20
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books, with his most recent, Almost Perfect, to be released in February 2017. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.