The last time Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt, it was 2015.

Vandy bested the Wildcats, 21-17, in a game where Kentucky gave up a pair of touchdowns to uncovered Commodores receivers. The Wildcats headed into that game in a 5-year bowl drought, hoping to sneak out 6 wins and reach even a lower-tier bowl.

It’s been quite a run since 2015.

The Wildcats headed into Saturday already qualified for a 7th straight bowl bid, in a run that includes a pair of 10-win seasons. Mark Stoops has gone from an unproven coach on the hot seat to the 2nd-most senior head coach in the SEC.

But after 7 seasons, it was Vanderbilt 24, UK 21 on Saturday. A Vandy team on a 26-game league losing streak headed into Lexington, outgained UK by over 100 yards and looked like the better team.

Saturday begs the question of whether the past 7 years were a glorious mirage for Big Blue Nation. Ten-win seasons, 1st-round NFL Draft picks and a well-regarded coach seem to have been a thing of some other alternative lifetime.

A daydream, maybe.

Or a mirage.

This Kentucky team got punched in the mouth by a team that hadn’t won an SEC game since October 2019. A week after it escaped a fairly awful Missouri team courtesy of a heads-up play by a punter who suffered a season-ending injury, drawing a key penalty flag. A week after it got drilled back into the Joker Phillips Era by Tennessee.

Kentucky entered this season expecting to compete largely on the basis of a potent offense led by a quarterback projected as a 1st-round NFL pick, one of the top running backs in program history and a veteran offensive line.

To say that hasn’t worked out is like saying that the Titanic’s voyage didn’t go very well.

Kentucky, which fell to 6-4 overall and 3-4 in the SEC, entered Saturday last in the SEC in total offense and 12th in scoring. Quarterback Will Levis has been sacked 40 times and is probably hurting his NFL stock with every snap he takes. Running back Chris Rodriguez had 162 yards on Saturday but has seemed disconnected and is being shuttled in and out of games as if there’s a prize for the most trips in and out of games. The offensive line has been not just bad, but historically awful.

UK’s defense and grit kept this season competitive. But with a host of injuries and an increasingly dour mood on the Wildcat sideline, there’s no amount of grit that’s going to counter what top-ranked Georgia will bring to Commonwealth Stadium next Saturday.

Kentucky’s run under Stoops has had a few hiccups. The 2017 season included a brutal Florida loss and a frustrating beatdown from Louisville. In 2019, a series of QB injuries left the Wildcats playing a modern version of the Wing-T offense with Lynn Bowden. In 2020, QB Terry Wilson struggled deeply, and UK went through an awkward 5-6 COVID season.

That said, the 2022 Kentucky team is faltering in a way not seen since, well, 2015. Maybe 2022 is the outlier. A new offensive coordinator, a new quarterback and a fresh start could spring Kentucky back to SEC competitiveness. But increasingly, 2022 feels like a gateway back to UK football’s past, where 5-7 seasons were springboards to basketball and dreams of the Music City Bowl.

There’s plenty still on the line for the Wildcats. Among the more important points are the 2 remaining games in the regular season, the almost inevitable firing, hiring and rearrangement of offensive staff, and trying to handle the transfer portal with a recruiting class full of players who are probably more than slightly disenchanted.

But, for now, the question remains: Were the past few years a new standard of Kentucky football or just a mirage in a football desert?