How did they get here? The SEC’s last four standing are heavyweights Alabama and Georgia, a surprisingly tough LSU team, and Kentucky. One of these things is most definitely not like the others. Having clinched the program’s first winning SEC season since 1977, Kentucky goes after the SEC East title on Saturday afternoon at Kroger Field in Lexington. So how did this happen? Glad you asked.
1. Standing by Stoops
After Joker Phillips ran the program into the ground, Kentucky did the logical thing it had just tried and completely failed with: Hiring an assistant and letting him grow into being a head coach. Stoops fit much better than Phillips but there were plenty of growing pains. Some expected Stoops to be gone after a winless second half to a 5-7 season in 2015. At that point, he was 12-24 at UK, and had four SEC wins in three years. But now Stoops is the second-longest tenured head coach in the SEC, and he followed those tough first three years with a 21-13 mark in the past three seasons. None of it would have happened without some patience.
2. Ohio State sleeps on Benny Snell
Make no mistake, if Ohio State had not somehow overlooked the stud running back who grew up in their backyard dreaming of being a Buckeye, Kentucky’s run would not be happening. Snell is 65 yards from being the sixth SEC player to have three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He became UK’s all-time rushing touchdown leader as a sophomore. Urban Meyer did the ‘Cats a favor on this one.
3. Finding the Josh Allens of the world
If you’re not going to recruit with the SEC’s big dogs, how do you beat them? By outhunting them. Josh Allen was a raw, thin young player who was headed to Monmouth. Kentucky saw what Alabama, Georgia, LSU, et al, didn’t bother to see — a pass rushing fiend. Allen learned technique, put on weight, and might be the best player not named Tua in the SEC this year. Not bad for a 2-star recruit.
4. Keeping some key Kentucky kids
Yes, Kentucky still loses a fair amount of top in-state talent — see Alabama’s Damien Harris and Jedrick Wills or Purdue’s Rondale Moore. But Stoops nabbed some key in-state guys, like center Drake Jackson and linebacker Kash Daniel, who had the big-time offers but also had the desire to elevate Kentucky’s program. Both players have been pivotal components of a brilliant season.
5. Adapting on the fly
This was particularly notable in 2016, when new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran established a passing offense only for QB Drew Barker to aggravate a prior injury and essentially lose the rest of his career. Gran went to an RPO attack around backup QB Stephen Johnson and saved that season. When Kentucky’s defense struggled horribly under then-coordinator DJ Eliot, Stoops and coach Matt House, who eventually replaced Eliot, took over larger roles to help steady the ship. It wasn’t always pretty, but both moves were big gambles that paid off, and helped Kentucky end up here in 2018.
6. Keeping the seniors
Kentucky’s senior class had several players who were possible NFL early entry candidates. Josh Allen was the most significant, but ultimately, Kentucky got back Allen, safety Mike Edwards, linebacker Jordan Jones, and tight end C.J. Conrad. Other than Allen and Edwards, the group were somewhat questionable as NFL prospects, but that hasn’t always stopped players from leaving in the past. Now, all four guys look like probable NFL draft picks, and Allen has certainly improved his NFL stock. (Note: Yes, Kentucky did lose end rusher Denzil Ware. Nobody’s perfect.)
7. Another Aussie punter
Kentucky’s biggest surprise this season has been Aussie punter Max Duffy, who has been rock-solid, averaging over 44 yards per punt and frequently pinning opposing teams deep. And he didn’t even know how to put on shoulder pads before the season. Duffy followed fellow Australian punter Matt Panton, who also played well in his graduate transfer season with UK. The Aussie punting production line is paying off for the ‘Cats.
8. Gambling on Terry Touchdown
Many, including this columnist, expected Stoops to pin his 2018 hopes on pocket passer Gunnar Hoak, who was a more experienced presence, rather than JUCO transfer Terry Wilson. Wilson has an undeniably higher upside, but also looks lost at times. He also has shown himself to be fearless, leading pivotal drives in the win at Florida and last week’s victory at Mizzou. Kentucky’s offense might have been smoother with a more experienced QB, but it probably wouldn’t have won seven games.
9. Bells and whistles
Do fancy accessories win college football games? Well, not really. But touches like an improved Nutter Training Center, a refurbished Commonwealth Stadium/Kroger Field, chrome helmets, an in-house DJ app that lets fans choose the pregame soundtrack, and now … well, some surprising public relations. All of it contributes to an atmosphere of excitement surrounding this 2018 season. The surprising PR? How about the Paintsville, Ky., kid in Times Square?
— Kash Daniel (@KashDaniel15) October 30, 2018
10. Because Alabama is in the West
If Kentucky can win Saturday, it probably will run into a title game buzzsaw. But that’s a risk Big Blue Nation is probably prepared to take.