Kentucky's Top 10 moments of the decade
After a woeful opening to the 2010s, Kentucky righted the ship late in the decade and provided some of the greatest moments and players in the recent history of their program. After a 20-41 first half of the decade, Kentucky rebounded to finish 56-68 (with a bowl game to play). That finish included 4 consecutive bowl appearances to end the 2010s, a 2018 10-win season with a Citrus Bowl win, and 4 All-Americans in the past 2 years.
Here’s a countdown of the 10 best moments that defined the decade.
10. 2010 win over Spurrier
In the fall of 2010, Steve Spurrier was 17-0 as a head coach against Kentucky. Even when Rich Brooks brought Kentucky football out of the dark ages in the mid-to-late 2000s, he couldn’t shake the Spurrier jinx. A No. 10 Gamecocks squad was likely to make Spurrier 18-0 vs. UK against 1st-year UK coach Joker Phillips. But Kentucky, in pretty much the sole outstanding moment of Phillips’ tenure, stormed back from a 28-10 halftime deficit to shock the Head Ball Coach.
9. Helicopter over UT in 2017
Despite a dismal decade for Tennessee football, the Vols have still maintained a significant head-to-head edge over UK. On the bright side, Kentucky ended a nearly 3-decade losing streak to UT in 2011. Later, Kentucky went -4 on turnovers against UT in 2017, but Stephen Johnson, playing with what was later revealed to be a separated shoulder, helicoptered into the end zone for the touchdown that beat the Vols. It was a gritty play in an ugly win — the type that had been a long time coming for Kentucky.
8. MacGinnis is golden at the horn against Mississippi State
A 2016 game with Mississippi State came down to a last-play field goal, and when Austin MacGinnis connected from 51 yards out, he lifted UK to a 40-38 win. The last time Kentucky won on a walk-off field goal? How about never? This kick boosted Mark Stoops’ 2016 team to the school’s 1st bowl in 6 seasons.
7. No-time-left win at Mizzou
Perhaps nothing testified to the futility of UK football more than a tendency to lose games in the final seconds. That made it all the more impressive when an offensively-challenged UK team moved the length of the field and connected on an untimed down for a 2-yard touchdown to win at Missouri in 2018. C.J. Conrad’s catch put UK in a de facto SEC East title game against Georgia — and was the polar opposite of what has happened to UK football in recent memory.
6. A Citrus statement
Kentucky’s 9-3 regular season in 2018 was the team’s first winning SEC campaign since 1977. Kentucky earned a spot in the Citrus Bowl and faced a talented and highly regarded Penn State team. Led by veterans Benny Snell and Josh Allen (both playing despite their soon-coming entry to the NFL), Kentucky claimed a 27-24 win that capped its 1st 10-win season since 1977.
5. The upset of Lamar and Louisville
Kentucky was a 4-touchdown underdog in Louisville to end the 2016 regular season against Heisman Trophy-winning QB Lamar Jackson. Aided by a late fumble by Jackson, Kentucky and late addition JUCO QB Stephen Johnson stole the Governor’s Cup with a 41-38 victory. Kentucky won 2 of the past 3 games against the Cardinals in the decade by decisive margins — a trend started with the 2016 upset. (This is as good of a spot as any to give an honorable mention nod to Lynn Bowden, who rushed for almost 300 yards at quarterback against Louisville this fall, but couldn’t quite crack this top 10).
4. Snell sets the record
No player exemplified the Rodney Dangerfield nature of Kentucky’s climb to respectability better than running back Benny Snell. A 3-star recruit, all Snell did in Lexington was crush the school’s record for touchdowns, and in his final game, set a career rushing record, 3,873 yards. But more than the yards and touchdowns, Snell’s team-first, chip-on-shoulder leadership style set the tone for Kentucky’s move from SEC bottom-feeders to contenders.
3. The explosion of Josh Allen
On the other hand, Josh Allen might not have played the disrespect card as prominently as Snell, but watching the 2-star recruit who UK grabbed from Monmouth become a star was also telling.
Allen is the poster child for Stoops’ ability to look beyond the physical specimen in front of him (210-pound kid with little football experience) to what might be (a 260-pound beast who was unblockable, and also great in pass coverage). In a brilliant senior season (after he chose to bypass NFL Draft early entry), not only did Allen take UK’s season and career sack records, but he was a consensus All-American and won the Nagurski Award as the best defender in college football.
2. Ending the Florida streak — at The Swamp
With the end of the Tennessee streak in 2011, Kentucky fans were then miserable about an inability to get past Florida. Unlike the Spurrier days, when 73-7 and 65-0 games left no hope, recent UK/UF games came down to a single error that would cost the Cats. The 2017 game was particularly brutal, with UK twice leaving Florida receivers uncovered and then nearly winning anyway, until a late holding penalty pushed them just out of field goal range. But a 2018 game in The Swamp finally ended the losing streak at 31 games with a 27-16 victory built on efficient play from QB Terry Wilson, some big grabs by Lynn Bowden, and a tough defense.
1. Hiring Mark Stoops
Hiring a 1st-time head coach to take over a 2-10 program after the 2012 season might not have been terribly glamorous. OK, it flat-out wasn’t. Neither was the 2-10 season Stoops’ 1st team (which was more like an FCS team than a Power 5 team) stumbled through in 2013.
But since then, Stoops has gone 41-34, and if Kentucky wins in the Belk Bowl, he’ll reach .500 for his UK career.
That might not seem significant, but the last UK coach to leave Lexington with a .500 record or better was Blanton Collier, who succeeded Bear Bryant before leaving UK after the 1961 season. Stoops was the 2018 SEC Coach of the Year, and has turned around about 4 decades of Kentucky futility on the gridiron. None of the above (save No. 10) happens without him.