Kentucky vs. South Carolina: What's on the line for each coach, team?
In the 2000s, South Carolina used to own Kentucky in football. Ten years, 10 wins. Carolina went from Lou Holtz taking over a morbid team and turning it around to the hiring of Steve Spurrier in 2005, and they beat Kentucky like a drum. Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss, Rich Brooks, they all took their losses.
But a funny thing happened somewhere along there. After Spurrier brought Carolina to its peak mojo with 3 consecutive 11-win seasons from 2011-2013, Carolina began to fall back … about the time that Mark Stoops started to turn around Kentucky’s luck.
Now, Kentucky has won 5 games in a row over Carolina — the Wildcats’ longest SEC yearly streak barring Vandy since the 1950s, when Bear Bryant was in Lexington. And where Carolina had once had all the momentum, well, those past 5 years haven’t been kind to the Gamecocks. Carolina won just 32 games in that span, and Will Muschamp’s first 3 seasons boasted a pedestrian 22-17 mark. Kentucky won 34 games over the same 5-year era, including a 10-win season in 2018.
But entering Saturday’s showdown in Columbia, both teams are reeling. Carolina is 1-3, with a disappointing loss to North Carolina and an uncompetitive thumping last week at Missouri. Kentucky is 2-2, having lost a heartbreaker against Florida and then played a thoroughly uninspired game at Mississippi State.
Somebody is going to grab a big win Saturday — but who, and what does it mean?
If Carolina wins …
First, if the Gamecocks win, despite a murderer’s row schedule, the possibility of at least a 6-6 season is on the board, and it’s a referendum for Carolina to establish itself as at least ahead of UK, UT, and Vandy in the SEC East pecking order.
It probably gives credence to the fact that Ryan Hilinski will bring better days to the Carolina offense, and should help Will Muschamp survive one of the hardest schedules in college football.
For Carolina, more significant than wins and losses are reasons to be optimistic moving ahead. It’s hard to sell program improvement when Kentucky owns you.
We're sitting at 1-3, face a Kentucky team on Saturday who we've lost to five straight times and Will Muschamp is our head coach.
Where does optimism come from heading into this weekend?
— The Spurs Up Show (@TheSpursUpShow) September 23, 2019
Meanwhile, if Kentucky loses this game, they’re 2-3 with a home game with Mizzou and a road game at Georgia still to come. A 6-6, 7-5 kind of season becomes their best case, and suddenly, there’s an abiding suspicion that the 10-win season of 2018 was kind of a fluke.
With that kind of talk — and some empty seats at Kroger Field in November — maybe Mark Stoops gets going while the getting is good after a 6-6, Music City Bowl kind of season.
Kentucky certainly is far from bare on talent, but it’s not a secret that the 2020 class looks to be the best one Kentucky has assembled in some time. Of course, a poor season could lead many of the big-time out-of-state targets to jump ship and dial back Kentucky’s improvement.
If Kentucky wins…
On the other hand, a 6th win in a row over Carolina establishes that Stoops’ success against the non-powers of the East extends beyond recruiting classes or quarterbacks. Given that Kentucky goes into this game looking at either a banged-up backup QB and/or a 3rd-string QB who has never played a meaningful snap, it would do wonders for Stoops and Eddie Gran’s reputation as game managers. Kentucky could easily parlay a win into another 8-4 season, possibly even a 9-3 campaign.
Stoops is the 2nd longest-tenured head coach in the SEC, and if he can get through the 2019 season without a major dropoff, the future is very bright indeed.
For Carolina, this is Muschamp’s 4th year. Eeven bigger than wins and losses (and a Kentucky loss makes even a 6-6 season almost impossible), expectations were higher than 6-6. For a team that returned 3 of its top 4 rushers and receivers and a senior quarterback, the offense was supposed to be significantly improved. The defense returned its top 2 tacklers, 5 of the top 7, and 7 of the top 10. We knew the schedule would be brutal, but most of that is still to come, not to blame for the poor start. Carolina has been a disappointment, plain and simple. If Muschamp has a 2nd losing season in 4 years, he might well not be around for a 5th year.
The elephant in the room for Carolina is Clemson. It’s one thing to be mediocre — it’s another when the school you want to perceive as little brother is winning national championships. The patience of Gamecocks fans will probably vary inversely to the success of the Clemson Tigers.
In any case, Saturday night, either Kentucky’s streak will continue, or Carolina will flip the momentum. It’s an important game, and the implications could go far beyond a single game.