Kentucky football: Challenges lessening on path to a dream season
Saturday certainly brought welcome news to the Kentucky football team with a 26-16 win over Florida. Monday didn’t do badly either, though.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 12, 2022
Yes, the No. 9 team in the nation got official word that its most lauded offensive player (he of 1,379 rushing yards last season) will be back for the resumption of conference play on Oct. 1. With 2-0 Kentucky ranked in the top 10 for the 1st time since 2007, it’s safe to wonder exactly how high the Wildcats can climb. In the (relatively) short term, the answer depends on whether Kentucky can reverse a pair of historical struggles. This is nothing new to Mark Stoops. He inherited a UK program that had lost 26 games in a row to Florida, that had gone 1-27 in its last 28 games with Tennessee, and that hadn’t posted a winning SEC record or a 10-win season since 1977. Systematically, Stoops’ troops have knocked out glass ceiling after glass ceiling. With Kentucky 9th in the nation, there aren’t many ceilings left.
But one is winning games at SEC West schools. Kentucky’s last road win against an SEC West school was against Auburn … in 2009. That’s 13 straight road losses to the West since Rich Brooks pulled one out on the Plains. Sure, the SEC West is decidedly top-heavy, particularly when compared with the division of Vanderbilt, Missouri and South Carolina. And road wins in the SEC are always tough to pull off. Even in Kentucky’s charmed 4-season-plus run since 2018, complete with a pair of 10-win seasons, Stoops has gone 9-11 on the road in SEC play. But the game with Ole Miss on Oct. 1 will be the most important road battle Kentucky has played against a West squad in quite a while.
Add that Lane Kiffin has had Kentucky’s number, from his overtime win over the ‘Cats in his 1 season in Knoxville to his 37-34 and 42-41 wins in Lexington in 2017 and 2020. While most of the offenses of the SEC have felt Stoops and Brad White’s defensive wrath, Kiffin has been something like UK’s defensive kryptonite. The Rebels’ 2022 squad is certainly talented, albeit with a 7.3 yards-per-pass average that suggests a slightly less than Kiffin-ish offensive style. Suffice it to say that with Youngstown State and Northern Illinois up next on UK’s schedule, the Big Blue Nation will likely take a more than slight interest in how Georgia Tech and Tulsa fare against the Rebels.
The other tough matchup for Kentucky that represents a hill left to climb is in Knoxville. Yes, Kentucky won 34-7 the last time at Tennessee. But that was the first win there for UK since 1984. That 2020 beatdown was probably the game that sealed the fate of Jeremy Pruitt. But while Kentucky football’s fortunes have steadily climbed and Tennessee’s have lagged as much as ever in program history, the Vols have still managed to handle the ‘Cats. Stoops is 2-7 against Tennessee, and while that’s 1 more win than Bear Bryant claimed over the Vols in his years in Lexington, General Robert Neyland isn’t walking through the door anytime soon. In the last 2 matchups in Lexington, Tennessee escaped with 3- and 4-point victories that are some of the most bitter defeats of Stoops’ tenure in Lexington. With Josh Heupel rallying UT’s fortunes, the Wildcats could use another win in Knoxville.
With the exception of that pair of challenges, and the looming spectre of Georgia on Nov. 19 (the game is in Lexington), Kentucky has a very clear path to where it wants to be. That’s not to say that South Carolina or Mississippi State couldn’t be a handful. But on the other hand, Kentucky hasn’t lost to Carolina at home since Joker Phillips was coaching against Steve Spurrier, and the Wildcats have won 3 in a row in Lexington over Mississippi State.
How big would a game be with 9-1 Kentucky or even an 8-2 Kentucky against Georgia in that regular-season finale for both squads? After beating Florida, Kentucky has earned the right to think about those kinds of questions. And if it can bust some negative trends in Oxford and Knoxville, that November showdown with Georgia might be the limit. And on any given Saturday …