10 things I’ll remember most about Kentucky’s 2018 regular season
A dozen games, several hundred snaps, and it all comes down to a line of type, a number of wins and losses, games lost or won. This season was a memorable one for the Kentucky Wildcats for many reasons, but here are 10 things about Kentucky’s season that will stick with me … and probably with many of you as well.
10. Crushing the Cardinals
Yes, Louisville was terrible. But anytime you can go into the house of your state rival and beat them by 46 points, it’s worth remembering. Kentucky opened Papa John’s Stadium with a 68-34 thumping that was the gold standard until this season, which Kentucky ended by resetting the record for Louisville defeat.
9. The resurgence of one linebacker and the emergence of another
Senior linebacker Jordan Jones had some injury issues and some on-field issues last season, culminating in the loss to Louisville when he was involved in multiple altercations with Louisville players. Jones bounced back with a solid season that went especially well with new starter Kash Daniel playing beside him. Both linebackers finished the season playing with broken hands, but it rarely showed up in the play of either, as they were both solid physical presences throughout the season, among the most dependable presences of the best defense Kentucky has fielded in many years.
8. Getting physical with Mississippi State
Kentucky was 3-0 when it hosted then-No. 14 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have always been a physical team, and there was a palpable sense that Kentucky might learn whether it was a legitimate SEC contender in that game. The Wildcats delivered a 28-7 win, holding State to 201 total yards and winning the rushing battle 229-56. Kentucky entered the AP Top 25 after that win, and has remained there since.
7. Heartbreak in Knoxville
Unfortunately, it isn’t only the positive moments that are memorable. Even in a wonderful season, the game that got away from Kentucky remains memorable for all the wrong reasons. Playing with an emotional hangover after a tough loss to Georgia in the de facto SEC East championship game, Kentucky was flat in Knoxville and gave up two second-quarter touchdowns to the Vols, digging a hole from which they could not escape. The 24-7 loss was by far the low point of UK’s season.
6. The environment for the Georgia game
While Kentucky trailed throughout and never really challenged Georgia in a 34-17 loss, the week leading up to the game was an amazing experience. CBS made the game its weekly broadcast, Kentucky was a topic of discussion as a CFP dark horse, and hoops coach John Calipari found himself answering football questions at a press conference. If you build it, Kentucky fans will come.
5. Stealing a win in Missouri
One of the stories of Kentucky football history is losing games that the team should win … which made the Wildcats’ last-play win over Missouri all the more amazing. Trailing 14-3 at the half and struggling offensively, UK turned a punt return score and a brilliant last drive from QB Terry Wilson into victory. Underused but much appreciated tight end C.J. Conrad had the moment of his career on a game-winning catch on an untimed down that stole a victory in Columbia.
4. A season of firsts
After Kentucky’s 5-0 start, much of the rest of the season consisted of “first Kentucky team to do thus and such since so-and-so” moments. Kentucky posted its first 9-win regular season since 1977, its first winning record in league play since that season, and was ranked in the AP Poll for 10 weeks, or exactly one week more than the total of all weeks it spent ranked in that poll from 1978-2017. For a program where the marks tend to be toward futility, it was entertaining to see Kentucky make positive history.
3. Josh Allen goes beast mode
Probably the most critical development of this season was that one-time 2-star recruit Josh Allen finished blossoming from talented-but-raw NFL prospect into absolute star. Allen’s 18.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks led the SEC, and enabled him to set both the season and career record for sacks at UK. Those who remember Art Still in 1977 tell similar stories, but Allen was a player Kentucky fans hadn’t seen the like of in the intervening 40 years.
2. Benny Snell running into the UK (and SEC) record books
Speaking of one of a kind, there is Benny Snell, whose penchants for hard-nosed running and 100-yard games have become so routine that he almost slides under the radar. Kentucky’s offense struggled, but in another season in which opposing defenses keyed on him, Snell carried the ball the ball 263 times for 1,305 yards and 14 rushing scores (both second in the SEC). Snell is 107 yards shy of UK’s career rushing mark, and has long owned the team’s touchdown records.
More than any of that, he has been the face of Mark Stoops’ completion of the emergence of Kentucky football. Two years ago, I spoke with former UK assistant coach Steve Ortmayer and asked him which player off the Rich Brooks Kentucky teams he would like to see on the current team. He considered my question and surprised me, saying, “Well, Rafael Little probably saved our jobs.” If somebody has this conversation some day with a Stoops assistant, he’ll probably say that Benny Snell saved the day in Lexington for Mark Stoops, a feat for which he will always be remembered in Lexington.
1. Ending the streak in The Swamp
If there is a single moment that defined Kentucky’s quest to move from OK to pretty darn good, it was ending the 31-game losing streak against Florida that dated to 1986. After an agonizing loss last season, Kentucky finished the job this year, winning 27-16, with Josh Allen making the final play to assure the win.
Winning in the SEC at Kentucky will probably always be like climbing uphill, but Stoops and his troops tore down a mountain on a September night in The Swamp. Many good things happened afterward, but all were probably rooted in that memorable win.