Kentucky football: Why UofL could get 'Cats right ... or continue a concerning spiral
The news for Kentucky football has largely been bad. Saturday’s 17-14 loss at South Carolina did nothing to change that pattern. The Wildcats’ defense was solid, but it gave up just enough plays to come up short. The offense was ragged, outgaining Carolina and going 6-for-13 on 3rd down but turning the ball over 3 times. And largely, Kentucky’s momentum — to the extent that any exists — is a downward spiral.
Kentucky ended September 5-0, courtesy of a convincing 33-14 win over a Florida team that had just knocked off Tennessee. Now, the Wildcats limp into the regular-season finale at 6-5, a “Thank God for Mississippi State” away from being on the outside of the bowl picture. And there’s not much to like about this team.
The defense, always designed as a bend-but-don’t-break style of attack, has bent more than a yoga superstar. At quarterback, Devin Leary has fluctauted between an outright disaster and a promising disappointment at quarterback. The 2 best-known wide receivers have issues — Barion Brown has been overrated, and Dane Key has been inconsistent. Virtually the only individual upside is Ray Davis, who is creeping his way to a 1,000-yard rushing season — not that you would know it from Saturday’s hurry to replace UK’s best player on the field for way too many snaps.
Mark Stoops built his Kentucky success on beating the teams he should beat, and then having a little good luck punching up in class. But in the past 2 seasons, Kentucky has lost to Vanderbilt, Missouri and twice to South Carolina. And the punching up hasn’t gone so well. The 10-3 season in 2021 will cover many flaws, but it may have to, because otherwise, Kentucky has gone 5-6, 7-6 and now 6-5 over the other 3 of the past 4 seasons.
So what would fix things?
Well, beating the crap out of Louisville. But that is easier said than done.
Even while Kentucky has floundered against the Georgias and Alabamas and has gotten toppled by Missouri and Tennessee, there was always the thought that Louisville was 1 battle the Wildcats have under control.
After all, not only has Kentucky won the past 4 games in the series, it has done it by a combined margin of 179-57.
But this isn’t a Scott Satterfield Louisville team.
In the face of Kentucky’s slow but steady climb under Stoops, Louisville has struggled through run 2.0 with Bobby Petrino and then the thick mediocrity of the Satterfield years.
So it went out and brought home Cardinal Jeff Brohm from Purdue. While Brohm’s Purdue teams put up plenty of points, they usually ended up bringing home competent but unexciting seasons. Brohm went 36-34 in West Lafayette, so UK fans could be forgiven if they weren’t trembling.
And now Louisville is 10-1, 10th in the national rankings and headed for an ACC Championship Game. In Year 1, Brohm has given Lousiville a shot of prestige. His team has found ways to win games … just as Kentucky has been finding creative ways to lose them.
On the one hand, the Louisville rivalry isn’t a big deal right now for Big Blue Nation. A 9-game SEC schedule is coming, and when it does, the Wildcats will drop their annual game with the Cardinals faster than a bad habit. And of course, UK is in the SEC, while Louisville is stuck in the floundering ACC.
But on the other hand, Stoops and his staff are starting to get long on pay and hype and short on results. A $9 million annual salary for 7-6 types of seasons won’t keep even the easy-to-please fans happy in Lexington.
And Kentucky’s turtle-in-summer-heat pace combines with the 1-5 results in the season’s past 6 games to make UK something near the Siberia of the SEC. It’s a nice exile spot for Davis, but forgive the kids from, say, Texas A&M if they aren’t looking to escape 7-5 seasons for something a little better than other 7-5 seasons.
Kentucky and Louisville will be about relevancy as much as rivalry. If Stoops can reverse the trend of the season and humble the Cardinals, he’ll not only retain in-state bragging rights, he’ll make a pretty decent case that the new era of NIL and transfer portal seeking hasn’t caused the game to pass him by.
And if not?
Well, Kentucky fans would prefer to avoid thinking of that.