Kentucky football: At the end of trying season, Kentucky got it right again
Taking Kentucky football from a starting place near the bottom of the SEC to league respectability has required several key ingredients.
The recipe: Take a successful head coach (Mark Stoops trails only Bear Bryant in UK wins), add a sprinkling of under-the-radar stars, hungry assistant coaches, and ultimately, a dash of good luck. The results are 5 straight bowl wins, 3 straight bowl games. Even if Kentucky had to play out 2020 without good luck.
Of course, there was COVID. Health issues, constant schedule shuffling, a lack of practice time, you know the song. On a more subtle level, it meant trading an FCS foe, 2 MAC-opponent home games, and the annual matchup with struggling Louisville for a trip to Tuscaloosa and a home game against an Ole Miss team that finished its 2020 season by knocking off the No. 11 team in the nation in the Outback Bowl.
And there was Chris Oats. Injuries are part of the game. Watch any given Saturday effort and you’ll see guys limping off with cramps, getting carted off with career-threatening injuries (see Terry Wilson), and everything in between. But what happened to Oats didn’t involve football or COVID. While details are scarce, the guy who was an all-SEC candidate at linebacker for Kentucky instead is in a wheelchair as a result of an off-field health situation. Again, in the luck lottery of football, injuries happen. What happened with Oats is a true life longshot.
Then there was coach John Schlarman. Even in the SEC, offensive line coaches don’t generally battle cancer and opposing defensive fronts over the course of the season. But Schlarman was a warrior, one who wrung the last drop out of his coaching career just as he wrung the last drops of his ability as a player as a 4-year starter at Kentucky in the 1990s. When he couldn’t be on the sidelines for 2 games after attending (and being presented the game ball at) UK’s victory in Knoxville, it certainly didn’t seem like a good sign. Schlarman passed away on Nov. 12, two days before Kentucky defeated Vanderbilt 38-35 in a game that will be best remembered for the Wildcats taking the field on offense with an open spot vacated at Schlarman’s old guard position, in honor of the departed legend.
There was also Eddie Gran. The even-keeled offensive coordinator had managed to keep his job despite underwhelming offensive returns. Gran in many ways was the epitome of the shift in Wildcat luck. Have an awful offensive game at Mizzou in 2018? Here comes a picture-perfect drive to win the game. Lose all of your QBs in 2019 to injury? Here’s a wide receiver who you can adapt on the fly into an All-American in a sort of new age-Wing T offense. But in 2020, Gran did get his walking papers, as Terry Wilson and Kentucky again failed to develop even a decent passing game to complement an effective ground attack that has carried UK.
But one place where luck hasn’t mattered for Kentucky is in getting outstanding bowl performances from players who could easily choose to opt out, This was especially striking in 2020, when kickers were opting out before the season as COVID ravaged the US. In 2018, Benny Snell and Josh Allen both chose to play — and star — in Kentucky’s Citrus Bowl win over Penn State. Bowden put his NFL aspirations on hold in 2019 to rush for over 200 yards — and throw the pass of his career — in the Belk Bowl win over Virginia Tech. So how did Kentucky overcome a run of rough luck in 2020? With a bunch of guys who easily could have opted out.
One-and-done DB Kelvin Joseph did opt out, before the season-finale against South Carolina. Fair enough.
Senior running back A.J. Rose didn’t opt out. He opted for 148 yards rushing and Gator Bowl MVP honors for Kentucky. Junior linebacker Jamin Davis, who was one of the SEC’s leading tacklers, could have sat out. Instead, he had 13 tackles, a sack and a pick. Massive senior DT Quinton Bohanna played, despite a season in which he’s battled injuries. QB Terry Wilson had an uneven game, but he chose to be with his teammates playing the game, and his steadying hand on the tiller can’t be ignored.
Over the past 5 years in Lexington, the Wildcats have specialized in winning games that they used to lose. The Gator Bowl was another one of those. When UK had to punt protecting narrow leads in the 4th quarter, not once but twice, the UK defense responded with interceptions on NC State’s next offensive play. When State scored one last touchdown, Kentucky easily fielded the onside kick and ran out the clock. UK won the rushing battle over NC State 281-50.
Kentucky has built Stoops’ success on solid ground. Now, they’ll go to work trying to add a reasonably decent passing game, courtesy of Rams assistant Liam Coen. The 2020 season feels more like a bump in a road of solidity than anything else. And if Kentucky had buzzard’s luck for one season, it was definitely on brand for 2020 to be the one. At least, the Wildcats will always have that Gator Bowl win.