Kentucky's success a product of East deficiencies in 2014
The Kentucky Wildcats are off to a 5-1 start in 2014, and could be in the midst of one of their greatest football seasons in school history. The last time Kentucky was this good to start a season was 2007, when the Cats began the year 6-1 with wins over No. 9 Louisville and No. 1 LSU.
This current Kentucky team, however, is nowhere near as good as the ’07 team was. The 2007 Wildcats, led by eventual NFL quarterback Andre Woodson, out-played a number of quality opponents as they climbed the national rankings, eventually cracking the top 10 of the Coaches’ and Associated Press Polls.
That team was one of the best in the nation. This year’s Kentucky team is simply among the best teams in a surprisingly weak SEC East.
The current Wildcats are a good team, but not great. Their success to this point has been heavily influenced by a lack of respectable competition on the schedule and in the East division. Unlike the SEC West, which boasts five ranked teams including four in the top 10 of the AP Poll, the East has just one ranked team (No. 10 Georgia) and a combined zero wins against teams from the West.
Kentucky’s best win this year was a come-from-behind win over unranked South Carolina, which has already blown multiple double digit fourth quarter leads this season. At 3-3, this year’s Gamecocks are off to the worst six-game start of the Steve Spurrier era, and they choked away the game against Kentucky just as much as Kentucky earned its comeback victory.
That win is the best win Kentucky has all season — a narrow seven-point win at home over an average team with a .500 record that choked away the game in the final minutes. So while Kentucky’s 5-1 record and its 2-1 record against the SEC are good enough to place it atop the East standings, it’s really more indicative of just how weak the East is this year.
The days of Tim Tebow and Aaron Murray and Jadeveon Clowney dominating the East are behind us. This year, the division is a dysfunctional mess of a division with only one quality team.
South Carolina is as bad as its been in a decade, Florida’s offense lacks a quarterback, Tennessee’s entire team lacks experience, Vanderbilt is back to being Vanderbilt with James Franklin gone to Penn State and Missouri couldn’t protect Maty Mauk from a group of school children no less an FBS defensive line (remember, Mizzou lost at home to Indiana of all teams).
Every team in the East is heavily flawed, including Kentucky, which, like Tennessee, has as little starting experience as any team in the nation. Aside from Georgia, the East does not have another great team. Nevertheless, someone still has to finish second in the division, and for now it appears the Wildcats are the team stepping up and taking advantage of the circumstances.
Kentucky has a chance to win every remaining game against its East foes this season, except perhaps its game against Georgia on Nov. 8. If Georgia somehow stumbles along the way, Kentucky could actually win the East and earn itself a trip to the SEC Championship game in Atlanta this December. But it wouldn’t be due to Kentucky’s dominance as a team; it would really be due to UK’s ability to make the most out of competing in a bad division.
The success Kentucky is experiencing this year has put the program on the map, and this will only help an already strong recruiter in Mark Stoops going forward. The Cats may not be as great as their record suggests, but they’re definitely improved from years past, and this season’s success will only help to continue that trend.
However, Kentucky fans must keep it all in perspective. The Big Blue Nation deserves to be excited by what this team is doing, but any aspirations of the school’s first SEC title since 1976 are a bit overblown, as are any hopes of beating No. 1 Mississippi State in a nationally televised game on CBS in two weeks.
The stars could be aligning for an unprecedented SEC East title in Lexington, but a division title would not make Kentucky the second-best team in the conference. Let’s face it, if this team played in the West it would finish in last place. The West is a division filled with experienced teams, big name players quality wins on every schedule. The East is a division filled with teams lacking an identity, coaches still searching for the pulse of their teams and a ton of freshmen learning the college game on the fly.
Luckily for UK, it plays in the East, not the West, and it’s chances of recording the program’s first nine-win season in 30 years are still alive. Kentucky is certainly improved. Dare I say it, these Cats could even be considered pretty good.
But they’re not great — just among the least bad in a bad division.