JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Stoops' Wildcats Riding High in SEC Eastern Division Race

After Kentucky’s ugly 14-7 win over Vanderbilt in an important SEC matchup last Saturday night, the football Wildcats, as you know, are riding high with a 6-1 overall mark with five games remaining. And they are tied for first place in the SEC Eastern Division race, sharing the same spot with Florida and Georgia.

The Big Blue Nation is pretty excited about the rising Wildcats even though the team is now struggling with its weak passing attack. The No. 12 Cats, with SEC-leading rusher Benny Snell Jr.’s record-breaking performances and Josh Allen’s defensive prowess, are definitely fun to watch. Don’t you agree? And UK could be riding even higher by the time Thanksgiving weekend rolls around with a regular season finale with rival Louisville.

Kentucky’s five remaining opponents are actually beatable even though third-year coach Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs will be extremely tough to handle. To be honest, we probably should say the Wildcats have four beatable teams, instead of five. Again, you never know what happens on the field.

Anyhow, UK’s next foe on the schedule is Missouri this coming Saturday (4:00 p.m. on SEC Network). While the high-scoring Tigers, led by senior QB Drew Lock, are formidable, they haven’t won a single SEC game in three tries so far this season. To be fair, two of their enemies were Georgia in a 43-29 loss and top-ranked Alabama in a 39-10 setback. South Carolina was the other SEC school which stopped Missouri 37-35. Last Saturday against Memphis, the Tigers were victorious in a 65-33 shootout. The Kentucky-Missouri matchup at Columbia will be a dogfight. Tigers by 6.

After that, UK returns home for a key showdown with Top 10 powerhouse Georgia, which has defeated South Carolina (41-17), Missouri (43-29), Tennessee (38-12) and Vanderbilt (41-13) before dropping to LSU 36-16 in Baton Rouge. The UK-UGA battle figures to be a fairly low-scoring affair with both teams featuring among the country’s top defensive units.

Kentucky could have a slight advantage against Bulldogs, who will be coming off an emotionally-charged weekend date with longtime rival Florida in Jacksonville this Saturday (3:30 p.m. on CBS). It won’t be enough for the Wildcats, who still may play a decent game before losing by 10.

Then UK travels to Knoxville on Nov. 10 to meet the rebuilding Volunteers, who have a first-year coach by the name of Jeremy Pruitt, the former defensive coordinator at Alabama and Georgia. UT, which recently surprised Auburn in a 30-24 road victory, will be hard to beat at spacious Neyland Stadium. The very last time Kentucky won in K-ville was in 1984 when Jerry Claiborne-coached Wildcats overcame Tennessee 17-12 in the last regular season game of their 9-3 Hall of Fame Bowl campaign.

But a more-experienced UK squad, while recovering from the Georgia game, still will come out on top against the Vols this time with a six-point win.

The next two games on UK’s schedule are non-SEC opponents. On Nov. 17, the Wildcats will host Middle Tennessee State, a respectable club from Conference USA. The Blue Raiders currently post a 4-3 record, which includes two SEC losses to Vanderbilt (35-7) and Georgia (49-7). Kentucky by 24.

And to conclude its regular season, Kentucky treks to Louisville where it faces a struggling U of L team. At this writing, the Cardinals are 2-5 overall and 0-4 ACC, including a narrow 20-17 win over Western Kentucky. The big difference between U of L’s present and recent past is Heisman Trophy-winning QB Lamar Jackson, who has since moved on to the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. UK by 9.

Well, that means Kentucky would finish its memorable and surprising campaign on a very high note with a 9-3 mark, one of the best in school history. And the Cats could be heading for a hot bowl date on New Year’s Day.

However, if coach Mark Stoops’ Wildcats somehow don’t finish at least 8-4 or better, I’d be deflated and disappointed after getting high hopes. How about you?

Anyhow, if a 9-3 campaign doesn’t materialize this time around, it should be pointed out that an 8-4 or a 7-5 mark is nothing to be ashamed of. But it’s sure hard to get excited after missed opportunities to move up in the always tough SEC ranks.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com 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.

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