Kentucky football: Ceiling? What ceiling?
For Kentucky football, possibility has generally been a very modest thing. Historically, Kentucky fans get the annual schedule and start subdividing the games. The wins (Vandy, maybe another league cellar-dweller, and a few nonconference cupcakes), the maybes (Louisville, whatever SEC teams are tending toward underachieving or having coaches on the hot seat) and the no-way-in-Hell games (historically, that was Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, maybe the non-Mississippi State SEC West team that Kentucky would face). Fans counted a few all-but-certain Ws, a few all-but-certain Ls, and then looked at the balance. Somewhere between 4-8 and 8-4, and the 8-4 never seemed to happen. Six wins was the frequent goal. Get a quality victory or 2, get a bowl game and the extra month of practice, give in-state kids some reason to keep the home state school in mind in recruiting.
Mark Stoops has blown that up.
Kentucky is 6-0 and 4-0 in the SEC. For the 1st time since 1950. For the 1st time since Bear Bryant won the SEC with Babe Parilli at quarterback and beat the consensus No. 1 team in the nation in a New Year’s Day bowl game. Kentucky bested LSU 42-21 on Saturday and generally looked like a team that has legitimate business in the AP top 10, in the SEC East race, maybe, if you’re inclined to be a little bit edgy, even in the College Football Playoff field (gulp).
Kentucky’s growth probably seems sudden to those in the national media. It hasn’t been that many years since the Wildcats were 2-10 or were losing games by leaving wide receivers uncovered or were giving up 75-yard Hail Marys to LSU. Building college football programs isn’t quick or easy work. Stoops has gone from 2-10 to 5-7 to 7-5 to a 9-3 campaign in 2018 that ended with UK tacking on a 10th win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. Ten wins was the most UK had since 1977. A literal generation had passed since UK last had a team like the 2018 team (and it’s worth noting that the 1977 group was on NCAA probation for illegal recruiting). Surely, that 2018 group was UK’s ceiling. An 8-5 season in 2019 and a 5-6 campaign last year suggested that it might be so.
Or maybe it isn’t.
Like 2018, Kentucky will face Georgia for a de facto SEC East championship. Unlike 2018, the Wildcats won’t spend the week hearing about how nobody around the program can remember a game this big. A few of the veterans of the current UK squad played in the 2018 game. The Wildcats seem like they’re better equipped for a game like that, with their own group of talented veterans like Darian Kinnard and DeAndre Square and transfer additions like Will Levis, Wan’Dale Robinson and Jacquez Jones. Now, to be candid, Georgia is also better equipped than in 2018. Georgia is the best team in college football, and unfortunately, it isn’t very close. To put this matchup in context for any UK hoops fans, the Wildcats are like 1985 Villanova. They may need to pull the equivalent of shooting 75 percent to best a Bulldogs team that’s every bit as swaggering and physical as the 1985 Georgetown basketball squad.
But Kentucky has spent the season (and indeed, much of the last 6 seasons) defying the odds. Besides, after Texas A&M’s upset of Alabama, there are even CFP paths for a Kentucky team that loses to Georgia. After the Bulldogs, UK’s schedule isn’t exactly easy, but it’s pretty liveable. At Mississippi State and home against Tennessee are both legitimately difficult matchups, but they don’t quite strike fear in Big Blue Nation’s hearts.
In any case, next Saturday will come soon enough. This is a time for pondering possibilities. Even the most optimistic of Kentucky ceilings are one more crazy Saturday from being broken. For Big Blue Nation, fiction is reeling and maybe dead. Anything is possible, at least for one glorious moment.