JAMIE H. VAUGHT: Big Blue Nation Getting Healthy Dose of Football Fever
Before New Year’s Day in 2019, like many fans, I only saw ONE great UK football team during my career as a sportswriter.
But that statement changed after the 16th-ranked Wildcats ended their stunning 2018 campaign with an exciting 27-24 victory over No. 12 Penn State on Tuesday in sunny Citrus Bowl in Orlando, finishing with an amazing 10-3 mark, including three wins over nationally-ranked teams as well as five SEC victories.
So, now, I can say that I’ve seen TWO great UK football teams in my lifetime.
The first one was the 1977 team when I was a student writer for Kentucky Kernel, the campus daily newspaper. That Kentucky squad, coached by charismatic Fran Curci, was really tough with future NFL stars in quarterback Derrick Ramsey and defensive end Art Still who helped the Cats to a spectacular 10-1 mark with victories over No. 17 West Virginia, No. 4 Penn State (on the road) and No. 16 LSU.
Because of NCAA penalties, Curci’s 1977 Cats -- who had played in the Peach Bowl after a 9-3 campaign in 1976 -- didn’t participate in a postseason bowl matchup. The Wildcats, who finished with a No. 6 national ranking, also had posted an unbeaten conference record of 6-0, but were not eligible for SEC championship due to probation.
Nevertheless, it’s an electrifying time in the Big Blue Nation which has seen so many disappointments and heartbreakers over the years in football. It is definitely fun or cool to be a Wildcat fan these days. This fall we saw the program improve after two straight 7-6 bowl seasons. We saw Josh Allen become the nation’s top defensive standout and Benny Snell Jr. break many rushing records, including Sonny Collins’ all-time career yardage at UK.
How often have the Wildcats won 10 games or more in a single season? Not very. To be exact, Kentucky has won at least 10 games only three times in the entire school history. The first one was the 1950 Wildcats who completed with a 11-1 mark after upsetting top-ranked Oklahoma 13-7 in the Sugar Bowl. Even though Coach Bear Bryant’s squad finished at No. 7 national ranking, Sagarin Ratings later declared the Wildcats the national champion for the 1950 campaign.
Also, seeing the 2018 Wildcats win a couple of showdowns in the Sunshine State of Florida -- against the Gators in Gainesville, breaking that long losing streak to UF, and against Penn State in Orlando -- is sure a perfect icing on the cake.
Now, with three straight bowl campaigns, Kentucky slowly is changing or transforming the so-called “losing” culture in its pigskin program.
“Well, there's no question that these guys change the culture,” said a jubilant UK coach Mark Stoops moments after beating Penn State on New Year’s Day. “As I mentioned many times, it's really easy to change the climate of a program. Culture is deep, deep, deep rooted for a long, long period of time. And, you know, it takes a lot to overcome and change that. And these guys did that. And, yes, by finishing games with a physicality and finding a way to win rather than finding a way to lose is changing the culture, and it comes with being physical. There's no getting around it. It is what it is. You look at the top programs and you look around the country and, you know, it's built on physicality.”
These extraordinary football Wildcats were simply awesome this season. And the once long-suffering faithful fans are now optimistic they don’t have to wait too long for another productive or great campaign at Kentucky.
Just call them the “Amazing Cats.”
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Looking ahead to the 2019 season, Kentucky will feature eight home games on its schedule. The Wildcats will open with two straight nonconference matchups against Mid-American Conference foes Toledo (August 31) and Eastern Michigan (Sept. 7) at Kroger Field.
The Toledo Rockets finished this past season with a 7-6 mark, including a 35-32 setback to Florida International University in the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. Eastern Michigan also posted a 7-6 record with a loss to Georgia Southern 23-21 in Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. By the way, Eastern Michigan upset Purdue 20-19 earlier in the season.
UK’s first SEC game is against Florida on Sept. 14, also at Kroger Field. The Gators whipped Michigan 41-15 in the Chick-fil-A-Peach Bowl to finish at 10-3.
Then the Wildcats travel to Starkville to face the Bulldogs of Mississippi State. MSU played in the Outback Bowl, losing 27-22 to Iowa and the Bulldogs finished with an 8-5 mark, including a 28-7 loss to UK in Lexington.
On Sept. 28, Kentucky has another road trip, facing South Carolina at Columbia. The Gamecocks (7-6) lost the Belk Bowl matchup, dropping to Virginia 28-0.
After an open date for the Oct. 5 weekend, the Wildcats stay home and meet Arkansas for the first time since 2012 when they dropped to the Razorbacks 49-7 during coach Joker Phillips’ last year at UK. Arkansas didn’t win a single SEC game this season, finishing with an overall mark of 2-10.
Kentucky goes to Athens for an Oct. 19 date with Georgia. The No. 5 Bulldogs battled against the No. 15 Longhorns from Texas in the Allstate Sugar Bowl before losing 28-21.
Then UK hosts Missouri, which played in the Autozone Liberty Bowl, on Oct. 26 before another open weekend date. The Wildcats will also remain in Lexington for a Nov. 9 date with rebuilding Tennessee Vols, who finished with a 5-7 mark, including a 24-7 win over Kentucky.
Vanderbilt, which dropped to Baylor 45-38 in the Texas Bowl, will host Kentucky on Nov. 16 in Nashville. The Cats defeated the Commodores 14-7 at home earlier in the season.
Kentucky completes its campaign with two non-league teams against UT Martin and Louisville. Both clubs are coming off 2-9 and 2-10 seasons. U of L has a new coach in Scott Satterfield from Appalachian State.
On paper, the schedule is very manageable for the Wildcats, who are losing several key standouts to graduation and NFL. It appears UK will have at least 10 winnable games in 2019 as Georgia and an improving Florida team are likely to be the toughest ones to battle on the field.
So, the future is still very bright in Lexington.
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If you enjoy reading football books, you may want to consider “Quarterback: Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League” (Doubleday, $27.95) by bestselling author John Feinstein.
In the 358-page hardcover, which was released in mid-November, Feinstein attempts to show readers what it’s really like to play the glory position and to live that life by featuring the behind-the-scenes stories of five NFL starting QBs – Alex Smith, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Doug Williams.He also discusses the injustice of NFL owners.
A sports columnist for the Washington Post, Feinstein has written several bestsellers, including “A Season on the Brink” (Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers).
Citrus Bowl Photo by Wayne Mason
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.