Hayes: Is Kentucky this good? Is Ole Miss? We're about to find out
The No.7-ranked team in the nation has an image problem, one that continues to be reinforced when opportunity arrives.
Kentucky, everyone, plays down to competition.
Just in case the Wildcats don’t exactly understand the concept of playing as poorly as your competition, it is here where we introduce No. 14 Ole Miss — which has the exact same problem.
Mirror images of a nagging problem.
“I feel like every game should be big,” Ole Miss defensive tackle KD Hill said.
If only it were that simple.
We’re a month into the season, and we don’t know nearly enough about 2 of the top 15 teams in the nation.
This is what happens when punching bags are scheduled as nonconference games, because 4 rent-a-wins gets you closer to 6 wins, which gets you in a bowl game. And the postseason, for programs trying to stay alive in the big, bad SEC, may as well be the Holy Grail for coaches trying to avoid getting pink-slipped.
Only that was years ago, when Kentucky and Ole Miss were building toward the upper half of the SEC. Now they’re there — and the nonconference games haven’t caught up.
That leaves both schools with these utterly horrific nonconference games from 2 ranked teams in the best conference in college football: Miami (Ohio), Youngstown State and Northern Illinois for Kentucky, and Troy, Central Arkansas and Tulsa for Ole Miss.
They each played a Power 5 team in September, Kentucky winning at Florida and Ole Miss winning at Georgia Tech. Neither impressive win had much staying power, other than average wins against overmatched teams.
They don’t do anything exceptionally well, but at the same time, haven’t done anything dangerously bad. They’re just existing and beating overmatched teams.
Even Kentucky’s win at Florida in Week 2 — a game that should’ve been one of the best wins of the young season — is now seen as a gift with Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson’s uneven play this season (and the gift pick-6).
The obvious question: What happens when 2 teams we know nothing about, play a game that suddenly means everything?
Can the switch be flipped?
“I pounded it with the team last week about us – the way we practice, the way we play, the discipline we have,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “I guess it’s human nature. They hear good things, they’re playing good, then they go out there and play very average.”
That can’t happen this week, on either sideline.
Kentucky has a former 3-star quarterback (Will Levis) who some scouts believe could be the first quarterback taken in the 2023 NFL Draft. Ole Miss has a former 5-star quarterback (Jaxson Dart) who almost didn’t win the starting job after transferring from USC.
Kentucky gets back the SEC’s leading rusher over the past 2 seasons (Chris Rodriguez) after a 4-game suspension. Ole Miss has arguably the SEC’s best tailback in 2022 in TCU transfer Zach Evans.
Lane Kiffin has been frustrated about consistency in the passing game and closing out games. Stoops has been annoyed by inconsistent pass protection and too many missed assignments and tackles on defense.
The little things that become big things, and the next thing you know, you’re desperately trying to close out a game against Tulsa. Or trying to pull away in the second half from Northern Illinois.
Only now, avoiding the next misstep, fixing the little things, translates to an October run that could set up the biggest game in years for both programs — as unbeaten teams.
For all of the imperfections, for all of the unknown this deep into the season, Kentucky and Ole Miss are set up to move much higher over the next month.
With a win, Kentucky could be 7-0 (including home games against South Carolina and Mississippi State) heading into a critical SEC East Division game at rival Tennessee at the end of the month.
If Ole Miss beats Kentucky, the Rebels could be 7-0 (including games at Vanderbilt, and against Auburn) heading into this SEC West Division gauntlet: at LSU, at Texas A&M, Alabama, at Arkansas.
“You hear people talking about us being a team that hasn’t really played a lot with each other, so there is a lot of new pieces,” Dart said. “But we are growing day by day. Quite honestly, we don’t know the level we can play at, or that we’re capable at.”
No does Kentucky.
Mirror images of a nagging problem.