Kentucky football: BBN, don't let an early-season clunker scare you off
Two weeks into the season, Kentucky fans were angry. Their Wildcats had thumped UL-Monroe. They had seemed well on the way to thumping Missouri when a few simple errors made it a competitive game. But Kentucky won that one, they were 2-0, and were disrespected by not being in the national Top 25. Kentucky was all but certain to go 10-2. Or was that 11-1? Who has their reservations for Atlanta?
And then, Saturday happened. UK was outrushed, outfought, and outhustled by FCS Chattanooga. It was the kind of game that could ruin a season.
But it didn’t. Kentucky 28, Chattanooga 23.
Before you forsake your bowl plans, listen up, Big Blue Nation: It’s going to be OK.
Kentucky is a notoriously slow starter under Mark Stoops. Whether it was losing to Southern Miss to open 2016, eeking by Eastern Kentucky late in the second half in 2017, struggling with Central Michigan to open 2018, or needing time to clean up early mistakes against Toledo in 2019, Kentucky has been here. They’ve also gotten better. A week after struggling with Central Michigan in 2018, UK won in The Swamp. The week after trailing FCS Eastern Kentucky in the third quarter in 2017, UK went to South Carolina as a 5-point underdog and won. After courting disaster to open the 2016 season with a loss, UK bounced back with a 7-win season that started Stoops’ success in Lexington.
And the funny thing is, that’s where the slow starts began. Before that, Kentucky started fast: 5-1 to open the 2014 season, 4-1 to open the 2015 season. The problem was that UK finished those seasons a combined 1-12 after the fast starts. Stoops had an early reputation as a coach who couldn’t win late. He fixed that — but in doing it, he probably left his early-season squads a little more vulnerable to disappointment.
It’s a process. Kentucky usually starts the season tentative on offense, defining roles on defense and rarely able to put the smackdown on opponents. In those seasons mentioned above, UK had quarterback shuffling in 3 of the 4 seasons. Of course, it’s not just a new quarterback but a new offense this season. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s secondary seems to get progressively more sticky-fingered as the season goes. It was Tyrell Ajian’s 95-yard pick-6 that probably averted disaster last week. Rotations are being defined, experience gained, and this past Saturday looked like a team with growing pains. Because it was.
But here’s the rub: When Kentucky went 10-3 in 2018 and won the Citrus Bowl, nobody looking back on the season remembers how much Terry Wilson struggled with Central Michigan in Week 1. In fact, he was benched briefly. He used the learning experience as fuel to play his best game the following week at Florida and later in the season, to lead a dramatic scoring drive to best Missouri at the final horn. Because Kentucky won over Central Michigan. Much as they won over Chattanooga, sometimes in spite of themselves.
Kentucky football’s history is fraught with games where Kentucky outplayed opponents. Picking off 7 passes against Florida in 1994? Yes. Kentucky lost. Passing for 528 yards against Georgia in 2000? Yes, Kentucky lost. Jumping out 21-0 on Tennessee in Knoxville in 2001? Yeah, also a loss. Leading Florida 21-3 to start the fourth quarter in 2003? You probably get the picture.
In Stoops’ pivotal 2016 season, Kentucky started winning games that they would have lost in previous seasons. That year featured last-second field goals to win games over Mississippi State and Louisville. The 2017 season featured a last-minute drive to beat Tennessee. In 2018, the Cats had several games that prior teams would have found ways to lose. In 2019, Kentucky won games with a wide receiver playing quarterback. Stoops has instilled a winning culture. It’s not an inoculation against ugly, late losses. But it certainly helps.
Kentucky won in Week 3. They won in a way they’ve sometimes won early in recent seasons. And there’s no reason to change your mind on thoughts that they’ll probably have some more impressive victories yet to come.