With a two-touchdown comeback in the fourth quarter last Saturday night at Kroger Field, the Florida Gators bested the Kentucky Wildcats 28-27, marking the 31st consecutive win for Florida in the series. More significantly, the Gators absolutely ripped the hearts out of a devastated Kentucky fan base. Or at least, that’s the narrative commonly circulating. Forgive me if I don’t quite buy in.
Yes, that defeat was brutal. Inside the final minute of the game, Kentucky — for the second time in the game— left a Florida receiver completely uncovered, which Florida capitalized on to lead for the first and only time of the game. Yes, Kentucky drove back down to potentially win the game, was flagged for a deeply questionable holding penalty and had to settle for a 57- yard field goal try which came up just short.
Saturday night was difficult to watch. It was frustrating. But heartbreaking? Maybe not completely.
Being close and losing is tough. Being not at all close and losing — THAT’s the soul-splitting stuff that got Kentucky football into the hole it’s crawling out of over the last two seasons.
Heart-breaking was 73-7 in 1994, after UK had made its first bowl appearance in nearly 20 years the season before. Heart-breaking was taking the top QB prospect Kentucky has ever recruited, Tim Couch, and dropping him into the Swamp for his first career start and watching him pass for 15 yes, 15 yards. And lose 65-0. Heart-breaking was when Rich Brooks took Kentucky to two consecutive bowls, revitalized the program, and went to Gainesville the following season… and lost 63-5.
Too many times, Kentucky has made what seemed to be progress only for the Gators to be the SEC’s big bad bully, shoving the 98 pound weakling Cats back into the SEC sand. Even in defeat, the change in the program over the past two seasons is clear.
Last season, Kentucky went to Alabama — the defending champion, in their house — and sure, the Wildcats lost 34-6. But ask the Alabama players, like defensive end Jonathan Allen, who credited the Wildcats with being the most physical opponent Alabama had played. Sure, 34-6 losses aren’t where UK wants to be. But nobody from Florida was giving UK credit for much after 73-7 or 65-0.
It is a long journey to the top of college football. It won’t be reached by leaving wide receivers open, abandoning aggressive play-calling out of fear, snapping the ball over the quarterback’s head, and failing to meet the arduous weekly demands of the Southeastern Conference.
But there’s reason to think it will be reached. Talent is better, clutch performance, although uneven, has been sharper in the last two years than at almost any time in program history. Kentucky’s schedule works out to a potential eight-win season in 2017. That Florida game would have accelerated the climb, and ended a miserable streak. But the climb will continue either way. For those patient enough to wait for the fruits at the top of the climb, they will be sweet indeed. I suspect they’ll taste a lot like Florida oranges.
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com Magazine. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written five books. His most recent, Almost Perfect (a study of baseball pitchers’ near-miss attempts at perfect games) is available on Amazon or at many local bookstores. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.