JOE COX: Surprising Wildcats Did Lots Of "Mission Impossible" Work After Disappointing 0-
A team with an 0-2 start that loses its “franchise” QB competing for the SEC East title?
A coach whose defense is gashed for 500+ yards and over 40 points per game suddenly reigning in that group to make stops and turnovers against the SEC?
A team going to Louisville, No. 11 U of L, and facing off against a dual-threat Heisman Trophy favorite QB—remembering that dual-threat QBs have been death to Kentucky football time out of mind—as a nearly four-touchdown underdog and winning?
Forget about it.
Well, this just in -- 2016 might be remembered as the season when Kentucky football surprised us all.
That surprise was never more apparent than last Saturday afternoon in Louisville, when two-star JUCO passer Stephen Johnson basically whipped likely Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, and when Kentucky sprung the biggest upset of the college football season with a 41-38 victory.
There they were—Kentucky—short of numbers, not particularly long on talent, fighting through a nearly back-breaking loss to Southern Mississippi, rebounding from a season-ending injury to Drew Barker, forging an identity as a defense that bent, but ultimately would not break, as a ground-based offense that could still surprise people with big-play passes.
The Kentucky Wildcats—winners. How sweet it has to be.
For Mark Stoops, vindication. For a gutty group of seniors, confirmation. For the fans who stuck by this team after a brutal start, a reminder that sports is special in part because a team is greater than the sum of its parts. Some young kids, some no-star walk-ons, and a group of guys who refused to give up have brought Kentucky football back to relevance. Who can say how much farther it will eventually go?
But today, everything is possible. If you grew up like I did, listening to people who said Kentucky would never compete for SEC titles, for NCAA titles, there is reason to think that they were wrong. It’s still a long way toward the light at the end of that particular tunnel, but it’s brighter than it’s been in a long time.
WHERE WE ARE
On the strength of 338 yards passing from Stephen Johnson, 229 yards on the ground, and an opportunistic defense that forced four turnovers from Lamar Jackson, UK ends the season at 7-5, 4-4 in the SEC East, and headed for its first bowl game since 2010.
The focus for that bowl is zeroing in on the TaxSlayer (formerly Gator) Bowl in Jacksonville on New Year’s Eve. If Alabama takes care of Florida in the SEC title game, that will likely be the case. Potential opponents mentioned most are Miami and Georgia Tech. This would be Kentucky’s highest prestige bowl game since the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1999.
Should something unexpected happen, Kentucky could end up in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, or perhaps a long shot like the Liberty Bowl in Memphis or Music City Bowl in Nashville. Regardless of the ultimate destination, we’ll keep you posted on the bowl situation.
One thing that begs to be mentioned is recruiting. Finishing the season with a big win like this will certainly not hurt on the recruiting trail, where Kentucky has already been busy trying to sway some big names into flipping over to the Wildcats. Even if the late recruiting buzz yields only a player or two, any such players are potential difference-makers for the Cats.
AROUND THE CONFERENCE
My current power rankings.
Texas A&M (8-4)
South Carolina (6-6)
Mississippi State (5-7)
Ole Miss (5-7)
I ended up the regular season with a 78-32 mark, which is pretty terrible. When you consider that each of the 14 SEC teams plays at least two cupcakes, that’s 28 gimme wins, which would reduce my mark to 50-32. Honestly, the entire SEC except Alabama has been a toss-up. And I think that continues.
Alabama 41, Florida 7 (SEC Championship Game)
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.