Kentucky football: What's at stake against Louisville (or the moving goal posts)
For years, it was the same story for Kentucky football. Unofficial but widely-held goals were: be competitive in the SEC, win 6 games now and again, give people something to enjoy and appreciate. Year 9 of the Mark Stoops era is proof that the goalposts have certainly moved. Stoops’ senior class won the 31st UK victory of the past 4 seasons in its 56-16 win over New Mexico State on Saturday. You have to go back to the 1949-52 seasons under Bear Bryant to find a Kentucky senior class that assembled more victories in its 4-year run. The current group can actually tie that group if the Wildcats win next week and in the bowl game.
But Saturday, in a half-empty stadium with a fan base that has been fairly critical of this 8-3 team, it’s clear that success is being redefined for the Wildcats. A winning season in the SEC? When Stoops was hired, it hadn’t happened in 35 years. It has now happened twice in the last 4 years. Nine wins in a season? Had been almost 3 decades since that had happened when Stoops was hired. Happened in 2018, and UK is a single win from doing it again. But success? In 2021, it’s feeling a lot like that’s contingent on beating Louisville.
The topsy-turvy nature of the SEC (particularly the bEast) in 2021 is partly to blame. Kentucky beat Florida — a Florida team that had just poleaxed Tennessee by 24 points and played within 2 points of Alabama. But now that Florida has gotten smashed by South Carolina and couldn’t stop an FCS offense, that doesn’t seem to matter. Kentucky beat LSU. The Tigers fired their coach. Missouri? South Carolina? Two more wins over bad teams. Never mind that if Kentucky had beaten Tennessee or Mississippi State, they wouldn’t be good teams, either. State would be at .500, and UT would be below it.
So why does Louisville matter? Nobody will pretend that the ACC is the equal to the SEC. Likewise, an 8-3 Kentucky team will likely be a mild favorite even at a 6-5 Louisville team. Kentucky has won the last 2 games in the series and 3 of the last 4, including the 2016 game when Kentucky took down Lamar Jackson’s Cardinals. There’s more than a suspicion that if Kentucky wins, many will just say, “Well, they beat a 6-6 ACC team. So what?”
Momentum is the biggest issue. Nobody needs to explain the difference between a 10-3 and an 8-5 season. Kentucky’s recruiting has been very good, but it will matter to see if it can hold on to guys like massive offensive line prospect Kiyaunta Goodwin, who is hearing from Alabama and other major players on the college football landscape. Finishing strong might help the Wildcats hang on.
Then, there’s Stoops. The last week has had him rumored to LSU. Miami has been discussed, and Iowa might be in the market for a replacement for Kirk Ferentz in the not-distant future. A happy Stoops might be more inclined to stay in Lexington, to continue serving as the 2nd-longest-tenured head coach in the league. And a Stoops who beats Louisville will be more appreciated than one who doesn’t.
But finally, there is that whole in-state grudge match thing. It does matter. While Louisville’s program was reborn under UK alum Howard Schnellenberger, the Wildcats were plugging along under Bill Curry. While Bobby Petrino was making Louisville must-watch football, the Wildcats were crawling out from under 3 coaches in 4 seasons and NCAA probation. Kentucky has taken the upper hand in the last 5 years, and on some weird level, it will always matter to many within Big Blue Nation that the ‘Cats be on top of the Cards.
So while Kentucky tries to move to 9-3 on the season, there’s actually much, much more than that riding on the UK-Louisville game. Momentum, recruiting, even the coaching future might be riding on the ‘Cats beating the Cards next Saturday. Moving goal posts? Stoops is fine with it. He wants to move the goal posts even further out, to division titles and New Year’s 6 bowls. If you keep crossing the goal posts, it doesn’t matter if they keep moving back. But you’ve got to reach them first.