Kentucky football: In hurdling the SEC, Georgia is UK's last big jump
Coaching Kentucky football has to be something like being a hurdler. So many of the “You can’t accomplish thing X at Kentucky” crowd have based them certainly on the imposing — and hard to overcome — historical record.
When he was hired in 2012, Mark Stoops was probably told that Kentucky couldn’t be successful nationally because they hadn’t been in 35 years. They couldn’t beat Tennessee (once in almost four decades when Stoops took over) or Florida (not in 20-some years when Stoops took over). They couldn’t recruit out of state (see Ohio), they couldn’t keep all the best players in state. They couldn’t create a culture of success, they couldn’t be lucky enough to get patience to build. Success in football in Lexington was an illusion. You could get past the first couple of hurdles, but there were always more to overcome.
Nine years into his tenure, Stoops has been like a midwestern Edwin Moses. Kentucky clinched its 6th consecutive bowl bid Saturday night, a program record. And those haven’t all been Music City Bowl appearances — Kentucky has ended the past 3 seasons by winning the Citrus Bowl, the Belk Bowl and the Gator Bowl. Kentucky has recruited as well as ever, and has built genuine in-roads in Ohio, Michigan, and even the deep south. They’ve all but locked down the best in-state players in the past few classes, with the single, painful exception of Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer. One who got away — Wan’Dale Robinson — came back.
Kentucky has beaten Florida twice in 4 seasons, and Tennessee twice in 4 seasons. They’ve been ranked, they’ve had a Nagurski Award winner and a host of players reaching the NFL. Stoops has a winning record at UK (despite that 2-10 season in 2013, when he simply had no players), which is a first since Blanton Collier left town. Kentucky is 6-0 for the first time since 1950, when Bear Bryant was at the helm.
The only real hurdles left? Well, the next one is a tall one: Georgia.
Kentucky last beat the Bulldogs in Athens, but it was 2009, when Mark Richt was struggling and Georgia started a quarterback who happens to share my name. Kentucky might need me to sneak behind center for the Bulldogs if they want to have a good shot at a Georgia team with a defense that is historically strong and a deep and talented group of offensive players who have done enough to dominate every team they’ve played.
Georgia has not been kind to Stoops. A year ago, with Joey Gatewood at quarterback, Kentucky’s defense was stout, but the offense literally took zero chances and lost 14-3. In the last trip to Athens, a monsoon muddied things up and kept the game close, but Georgia pulled away late, 21-0. In 2018, in another de facto SEC East title game, Georgia punched UK early and often, and the 34-17 UGA win probably wasn’t as close as the score. The only truly competitive game in the series with Stoops has been 2016, when Georgia ran down the clock and used a short Rodrigo Blankenship field goal to get a win in Lexington, 27-24.
And this Georgia team is not disposed to be kind to anybody. Not only is UGA first in the nation in scoring defense, with 5.5 points allowed per game, they’re first by almost a touchdown. They allow the fewest yards per game (204), are 4th nationally in run defense while allowing 2.2 yards per carry, and lead the nation in fewest passing yards allowed and opposing QB rating.
It’s far from certain that an all-star team made up of the best players on the other 6 teams in the SEC East would beat Georgia. Frankly, there may not be anybody in college football that can play within 14 points of the Dawgs. But …
The past 9 years have provided a powerful indication that one of the dumbest things anyone can do is tell Stoops what Kentucky can’t do. Two games into the 2016 season, with Stoops sitting at 12-26, who would have believed what was coming? Who knew Benny Snell would be the school’s all-time leading rusher or Josh Allen would be such a fierce defensive player? Or that Josh Paschal would beat cancer and SEC offensive lines? Or that UK could nab transfers like Wan’Dale Robinson, Will Levis, Dare Rosenthal and Jacquez Jones and plug and play them to the top of the SEC?
So, yes, Georgia is a tall hurdle. It will take a near-perfect game, a poor performance from Georgia, and a little bit of luck. But Mark Stoops is one hell of a hurdler.