Kentucky football: Loss to UT is bad, but overarching narrative might be worse
After a lifetime of finding ways to lose, Kentucky football found a new one Saturday against Tennessee. The Wildcats did not punt against the Volunteers. They scored 42 points, racked up 612 yards of total offense and held the ball for more than 46 minutes. And they lost, largely because of a defense that seemed to have been introduced to each other (and possibly to the game of football) in the last few minutes before kickoff.
Damaging as the loss was to Kentucky’s momentum (and it is damaging), the 2021 Wildcats will be fine. Barring something insane, they’ll end up with a winning SEC record for only the 2nd time since 1977 and will finish 2nd in the SEC East. But Tennessee’s win in Lexington suggests that the Wildcats have a new, daunting enemy in trying to hold on to 2nd.
Kentucky rose to 3rd in the SEC East pecking order when the other teams in the East basically collectively fell asleep. South Carolina experimented with Will Muschamp, Missouri lost its long-time head coach and seemed to have no real clue how to replace him, Tennessee has changed coaching regimes like socks and Vanderbilt … well, other than that whole James Franklin thing, we all know who Vanderbilt is.
That left Georgia and Florida, obviously the class of the East, the last 7 SEC East winners. Nobody is gaining on Georgia, except maybe UGA’s 2nd team. But as for Florida, beating UF in Lexington gave Mark Stoops his 2nd win in 4 seasons over the Gators. It seemed to leap Kentucky to 2nd in the division pecking order. It’s where the Wildcats finished in 2018 and where they’ll finish this year, unless they lose to Vandy or something equally unlikely happens.
But Tennessee probably just laid claim to 2nd in the East. Yes, the Vols are going to go 7-5 this year, while Kentucky will probably end up 9-3. Yes, the Vols got hammered by Florida. Yes, they lost out of conference to Pitt. But Tennessee has improved week to week, giving Alabama trouble then beating Kentucky. The Vols will probably be the most interesting foe Georgia will play in this regular season.
And with Josh Heupel’s high-octane offense, good times will probably only get better. The Vols have stumbled and lumbered since Phil Fulmer left town. But the Vols finally got a head coaching hire right, if the last month is any kind of guidance. It won’t be hard for Tennessee to recruit playmakers for this offense, and while the Vols’ defense has had its share of growing pains, help will likely be on the way. And meanwhile, UT improved to 7-2 against Stoops during one of its more fallow periods of football history.
The same week that Florida was decimated by South Carolina, very possibly sealing the fate of Dan Mullen in Gainesville, Kentucky got an up close and personal lesson that it’s not UF whom the Wildcats have to fight off for 2nd in the SEC East. It’s Tennessee, and the Vols just fired an impressive first shot in that battle. Kentucky needs to craft an answer pretty quickly, or the Wildcats beyond 2021 will be back to playing for 3rd in the SEC East.