Kentucky football: What if Mac Jones had stayed a 'Cat?
Saturday afternoon, Mac Jones and the Kentucky Wildcats will try to pull the upset against the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide. Wait, that’s not right. But it could have been.
Lost in the week heading up to this game is the possibility that Jones could well have entered this week’s game not in Alabama crimson and white but Kentucky blue and white. Jones committed to UK in July of 2015. When Kentucky recruited Jones, a 3-star recruit, he had yet to emerge on the national radar and had been offered by East Carolina and Mercer.
Alabama came calling after a summer camp performance, and Jones ultimately decided to go to the Tide, apparently in part because Kentucky had fired Shannon Dawson, who was the offensive coordinator when Jones committed. This had coincided with Jones becoming something of a national QB recruit, albeit not an unusual one for Alabama. But how might the world be different if Jones had stayed with Kentucky?
First, with Jones in the fold, there’s no Terry Wilson in Lexington.
Jones was in the 2017 class, so JUCO Stephen Johnson still would have been at UK as the presumed backup to Drew Barker, and still would have unseated the highly-regarded but brittle Barker as the starter. Johnson was a senior in 2017, so it’s likely that Jones would have sat behind him that year. Perhaps Ohio State QB Gunnar Hoak wouldn’t have come to Kentucky in 2016 had Jones stayed in the fold. Or maybe Hoak would have still come and former Vandy QB Danny Clark wouldn’t have come to Lexington in 2017. In any case, the QB depth chart would have looked different.
Second, Lynn Bowden the quarterback probably wouldn’t have happened. Given that it was an injury to Wilson that started the domino effect that ended up with Bowden as UK’s primary QB in 2019, Bowden would have presumably stayed at receiver had Jones come to Lexington. And here’s the thing — lost in the shuffle of Bowden at QB is the fact that Bowden at WR was a legitimate game-changer … particularly if he had a little help. Maybe Bowden wouldn’t have been Jerry Jeudy or DeVonta Smith. But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt Bowden’s transition to the NFL to have gotten more action at receiver.
Third, if Jones is in Lexington and Kentucky’s showing an adequate passing game, maybe in-state athlete Wan’Dale Robinson doesn’t decommit from the ‘Cats to end up in Nebraska. Maybe with a pair of elite playmakers at receiver, UK could’ve better utilized tight ends like C.J. Conrad and Justin Rigg. Maybe senior Josh Ali could’ve emerged as a big-time third option instead of the primary receiver on the 2020 team.
But why stop at Wan’Dale?
A more balanced, traditional offense might’ve encouraged Lexington high school OL standout Walker Parks to stay home at Kentucky instead of heading to Clemson. It might have made Covington, Ky., standout TE Michael Meyer opt for Kentucky instead of Notre Dame.
The possibilities are endless.
But before Big Blue Nation looks too exasperated, there’s another side to the coin. Maybe a drop-back attack wouldn’t have emphasized Benny Snell or Bowden as rushers in the same way that Kentucky did in 2018 and 2019. Kentucky probably doesn’t lead the SEC in rushing in 2019 running a traditional offense. Maybe the trio of running backs who lead Kentucky in 2020 would’ve gone elsewhere. There’d certainly be fewer opportunities for standout Chris Rodriguez’s bulldozer style in a drop-back passing game. The Wildcats might not have won at Florida in 2018 or Knoxville in 2020, or started winning close games with Eddie Gran’s ball-control offense that admittedly only a mother could love.
How might Alabama’s situation have been different? One assumes that the Tide just plug in another 5-star QB (Bryce Young, for instance) and plow on. But without Jones’ seasoning on the bench, maybe the Tide would’ve struggled in 2020. Maybe Jones’ time riding the pine makes the difference if Florida challenges Bama in the SEC title game or in the CFP.
In any case, Mac Jones is competing for the Heisman at Alabama. Would he have done that at UK? Who else would have come?
At the end of the day, it’s all academic. Stoops and Co. made lemonade from lemons after Jones decommitted. That doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting (if heartbreaking for UK fans) to imagine the victory champagne that could have flowed with Jones in blue and white.