Kentucky’s annual bye week finds the team in relatively rarified air at 5-1. UK drew votes in both the AP poll and the Coaches’ Poll for the Top 25, and has subtly gained respect in the college football landscape. The question is — Will that respect be borne out by wins in the second half of the season?
After Kentucky’s dramatic 40-34 win over Missouri last Saturday, of the Wildcats’ five wins, each was still in doubt in the middle of the fourth quarter, with three wins going down to the last seconds, and two to the final play of the game. Star running back Benny Snell has termed it “unbelievable” that the Wildcats aren’t ranked in the Top 25 with their 5-1 record.
Indeed, Kentucky is a flukish holding penalty in the Florida game from being 6-0. Message board posters are still calling for 11, 12, even 14 wins this season. History isn’t necessarily on their side.
The last time Kentucky won even eight games in a regular season was 1984, when the Cats had an 8-3 campaign en route to a Hall of Fame Bowl victory for their ninth overall win. Since then, Kentucky has gone 5-1 to start a season only twice.
In 2007, UK started 5-0 before losing to South Carolina. Their next game was a take-down of No. 1 LSU in Commonwealth Stadium, which vaulted UK briefly into the top ten of the national polls. That UK team that stumbled to losses against Florida, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Tennessee to end their regular season at 7-5.
In 2014, Mark Stoops’s second UK team opened 5-1. Much like the present Wildcats, they played an uninspired schedule over the first half of that season. Unlike the present team, they blasted opponents, beating UT-Martin by 45, Louisiana-Monroe by 34, and winning the other three games by 34 points combined. This year, UK has won all five games by a total of 38 points. That 2014 team collapsed down the stretch to a 5-7 season.
But enough gloom and doom. Sure, the last two 5-1 UK teams finished their regular seasons by going a combined 2-10. But the culprit they had that the current team doesn’t have? A tough schedule! In 2007, UK faced four teams in the nation’s Top 20 after their 5-1 start. With a schedule like that, going 2-4 wasn’t shocking. In 2014, the Wildcats drew three ranked teams in the back half of their schedule, including the top ranked team in the nation. Those two teams played two combined Top 25 teams in the first halves of their schedules, and seven in the second halves.
This year? At the moment, Georgia is the only ranked opponent on UK’s schedule. Louisville could climb back into the rankings, but otherwise, the Cats are unlikely to face another ranked opponent.
So as with so many things about Kentucky football, there’s room for optimism for those who are hopeful—and room for pessimism for those who are doubters.
The view from here? Hopefully I’m splitting the difference in staying the course with my prediction of a 3-3 second half from before the season. Back in my preseason column, I projected UK to beat Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Vandy. All sounds about right. I thought the Wildcats would come up short against Mississippi State, Georgia, and Louisville.
Eight wins would be, as noted above, the best regular season in 33 years. It would be a step forward for the program and probably another appearance in a solid, mid-tier bowl (Outback maybe?). But I’d be the first to admit that this is a hard team to get a read on, and any outcome from 5-7 to 10-2 seems plausible at this point.
With Kentucky off, let’s take a weekly shot at guessing the rest of the SEC’s games:
Mississippi State 38, BYU 10
South Carolina 24, Tennessee 17
Auburn 31, LSU 21
Ole Miss 38, Vanderbilt 34
Texas A&M 27, Florida 24
Alabama 45, Arkansas 3
Georgia 45, Missouri 10
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.