Born Again in the Bluegrass: The Year of Perpetual Statement Games

Kentucky Football is on the rise. Or so UK fans tell themselves every week as they walk out of Commonwealth Stadium. But somehow, by the time next week’s game starts, they’re back to their old ways. Cursing the refs and wailing “Oooooonly Kentucky football.” Its as if everyone believes Billy Gillispie is sitting in some hut down in the Bayou somewhere casting some voodoo shit on us. Making us think we lose even when we win.

Dontchu use dat voodoo magic on me Billy G... Keep dat shit to yo'self

Dontchu use dat voodoo magic on me Billy G… Keep dat shit to yo’self

Mark Stoops’ “Why Not” campaign is every bit as much for the UK fanbase as it is for recruits and players. This coaching staff is built top to bottom with winners. They win recruiting battles, the win football games, hell, the Defensive Line Mark Stoops and D.J. Elliot built won a national title down at Florida State. The players are winners too. Maybe not all the juniors and seniors. They’ve lived through 2 years of Joker Phillips losses and Stoops’ first 2-10 season, but everyone that has been brought in from JUCO guys to transfers to recruits, redshirts to freshman starters, they’re all winners. They were all the best players at their high schools, some of the best players in their states, and some of them were among the best players in the United States as recruits.

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

(Photo Credit: UK Athletics)

As Kentucky Football fans we loooove to talk about how Bear Bryant started here. How he won the SEC and his first national title with us, before Alabama so cruelly stole him away from us. We’ll tell you that the spread offense that took off in the Big 12 during the late 90s and 2000s started with Hal Mumme and Tim Couch at UK, and even Tom Leach’s golden years of the Air Raid Offense at Texas Tech with stars like Michael Crabtree (which Neil Brown still coaches today for his Alma Mater) originated at UK. And somehow, none of this helps us shake the stink of years of consistent struggles. We may show blips of success (1950 National Title, 1976 Co-SEC Champs, ’97 Tim Couch and Hal Mumme knock off Alabama in Commonwealth Stadium, ’98 they beat LSU in Baton Rouge, and in ’99 Tim Couch became the #1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The 2007 miracle victory over #1 LSU and the 2008 near upset of #2 Alabama in Tuscaloosa in front of 90,000 pissed off Bama fans.) but  I can count those moments on my hands, and one of them didn’t even involve UK, it involved a kid leaving for the NFL draft. And if you wanna take it further, it just takes one look at the list to see its few and far between when we even get to a bowl game.

But that right there is the Kentucky fan mentality. Every kid and coach on this team is a winner. They know how to win. Winning is all they’ve done. But the fans? Except for those rare blips of glory, all they’ve done is lose, lose, lose no matter what. The people involved with the team may not need to learn how to win, but the fans sure do. And this whole year will be one big learning lesson by the looks of things, which I’m more than ready to embrace.

Its become a little bit comical to me how every single game every single week is the “game of the year” for us. UT Martin and Ohio were important because of last year’s loss to Western Kentucky in Nashville. We had to make sure there weren’t going to be any more stupid slip ups. Florida was important because it was Stoops first big chance for a signature win of the year (and if theres such a thing as a signature loss he certainly got one, but oh well). Vanderbilt was huge because it was our best chance to end the streak of 0 wins in conference against SEC teams since November 26, 2011… almost 3 full years (but what a win that was).

South Carolina was big because it was another chance for that elusive signature win for Stoops. Hell, even Louisiana-Monroe was important because it represented a potential 5th win for the year (meaning we now have 6 tries to get our 6th win and qualify for a bowl) and because we needed to avoid a trap game and a let down before the big LSU game next week. And obviously the LSU game is our latest “Game of the Year… of the week…”

And even though we’re already setting ourselves up for another dose of this next week with Mississippi State, it won’t be any less true then either. If we beat LSU, thats SPECTACULAR. A road in in the SEC (our first of the year) in perhaps the most hostile environment in the conference (and maybe all of college football) against a traditional SEC power. This would be huge. But LSU is unranked. We’ve yet to beat a ranked opponent in the Stoops era. Moreover, not only is MSU ranked, they’re the #1 team in the country (deserving or otherwise). So there’s no doubt that would be the game of the year for us whether we win or lose against LSU this week. A win there would mean Kentucky was on the map nationally and would start getting major buzz to fight Georgia for the SEC East title this year.

As far as the game itself, it won’t be easy. Kentucky has only played ONE road game all year so far (@ Florida) so they’re relatively untested and they lost that game so they’re definitely unproven. (Moreover, LSU just went on the road to Florida and beat them by a field goal last week, so in that regard they’ve got us topped.) But even if we’re untested and unproven, that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen them come up big this season. We’ve seen a spectacular touchdown run by Boom Williams in overtime. We’ve seen a perfectly scripted, and executed Neil Brown trick play to Ryan Timmons to tie up the South Carolina game. Hell, we saw a win against Steve Spurrier who has owned Kentucky for his entire college football coaching career. Not to mention we’ve seen an ESPN top play quality grab from our resident athletic freak Javess Blue (holder of the “Best Last Name on the Team” award 2 years running. Sorry Gruenschlaeger. Better luck next year).

(Photo Credit: David Stephenson, AP)

(Photo Credit: David Stephenson, AP)

Kentucky has only played one road game all year, and that was a loss to Florida, but they played them close and easily could have won that game if it weren’t for 2 defensive backs colliding with each other on what could have been the last play of the game. Furthermore, they had some great showings and near misses on the road last season. A near miracle comeback against South Carolina in Columbia and a chance to beat Mississippi State in Starkville with 25 seconds to go and UK on the 30 yard line. So by no means to we simply wilt on the road. Now, we were never tested the same way those drunk Tiger fans will test us at 7:30PM this Saturday, but hell I’ll take my chances. Mark Stoops has done what I never though was possible at Kentucky. He’s built a power running team with a dominant Defensive Line that can compete with anyone in the SEC. I always thought Kentucky could win in the SEC, but I thought it would be with a Big 12 style (Hal Mumme) spread offense that aired it out, over the heads of those rhinoceroses other SEC teams call defensemen. In fact I thought Neil Brown was the much more important part of the Stoops coaching staff as he was not only a Kentucky native, but would bring in this style of offense.

Instead, we have our own rhinoceros in the form of Matt Elam, and a couple stud defensive ends in the form of Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith to anchor the line. Perhaps more importantly, however, UK’s D Line is DEEP. Besides the 3 bluechippers mentioned we’ve got Mike Douglas (whose tipped pass ended up winning us the South Carolina game) Melvin Lewis, Reggie Meant, Jason Hatcher, Cory Johnson, Jabari Johnson, and Farrington Huguenin to ensure that we can always keep a fresh unit on the field, which will be incredibly important against LSU. Because even though LSU is having a down year (one of the main reasons for all this Kentucky optimism going into Death Valley) their running game is still their strength offensively. I can’t remember the last time an LSU wasn’t able to run the ball down Kentucky’s throats. Their quarter back play is definitely questionable this season which is a good thing, because even though UK is #2 in the nation in interceptions, a lot of that is simply broken down plays caused by our D Line wreaking havoc on opposing O Lines and QBs, rather than by stellar secondary play. Moreover, even though a lot was made of Josh Forrest’s 15 tackles in the South Carolina game, our Linebackers struggle mightily to wrap up guys and make tackles. We’ve seen enough broken arm tackles and stiff armed UK players this season to make Wesley Woodyard, Danny Trevathon, and Avery Williamson cry. The Linebacking play NEEDS to get better, but until they do we’ll be relying on the D Line to come up big and shut down Leonard Fournette and Kenny Hilliard at the line of scrimmage if we want to have any chance of getting our Defense off the field, but I for one am hopeful that they can do it.

More of this. (Photo Credit: Travis Spradling)

More of this. (Photo Credit: Travis Spradling)

Less of this (Photo Credit USA Today Sports)

Less of this (Photo Credit USA Today Sports)

Offensively, Stoops has built us an SEC style power running team. We have a stable of running backs so deep it really makes me feel for a guy like Josh Clemons who (because of his injury history) just can’t break into the lineup. Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp, Braylon Heard, Mikel Horton, Ryan Timmons at times, and even the aforementioned Clemens make the RBs by far Kentucky’s deepest skill position, and perhaps the deepest position on the team period. Hell, even QB Patrick Towles rolls out with his enormous 6’5″ frame to run a la Ben Roethlisberger. If it weren’t for the fact that LSU’s Defensive line weren’t composed solely of Grizzly Bears and their Linebacking corps of Silverback Gorillas I’d say we could trust the running game to carry us through the crowd noise and sneak out a tough defensive victory. As it is I’m still happy to take our chances.

This game means a lot to Kentucky. Beating an LSU is an achievement we rarely get to see in the comforts of the Bluegrass state let alone in Death Valley. Doesn’t matter if LSU is ranked or not.  Right now Kentucky is ranked the #30 in the AP Poll compared to LSU’s #27 so a win for either program will jettison them into the top 25, somewhere Kentucky hasn’t been since 2007, the year of our last win against LSU. After that win against #1 LSU UK hosted college game day the next week against #8 Florida, and there’s a 90% chance UK would host it again this time against #1 MSU if they pulled off this upset. So there’s a lot at stake here for fan pride, even without considering the fact that UK is tied for 1st in the SEC East and could put themselves in the driver seat to play in the SEC title game. Now that might not come to be, but it sure is nice to be able to dream with this team after so much losing. Win or lose, everything will be fine. We’ve got a team worth watching and a team that wins. Now we just need to hope the fans can pick up on that, and start believing themselves. Unless of course Les Miles is hanging out in that VooDoo hut with Billy G. Then we’ve probably got some serious, scary shit comin’ our way.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article and you really hit the nail on the head. I’ve been a die hard UK football fan for my entire life. More of a UK football fan than basketball to be truthful but I love both. The things I’ve always complained about the University not doing for the football program have/are being done as we speak (Thank you SO much Mr. Barnhart). The facilities are on their way, this is not a good coaching staff but a GREAT coaching staff they have shelled out the money for, and the recruits that have come in the last two classes are setting this team and possibly the season up for great things to come. Even I wasn’t expecting a turnaround in year two but the stars are aligning for this team with each step IF they can split the next two games. Go .500 against LSU/MSU and anything is possible this season and I like to think we have a puncher’s chance at home against MSU after being at the South Carolina game. That game was the craziest/loudest I’ve EVER heard any stadium – previously that was Neyland stadium in Knoxville for 17-16 loss and TN had to have the win. You give me a better atmosphere than that and I’ll like UK’s chances against any team in the country. This is a weakened SEC east, sure, but UK needed that in year two so ignore haters and be excited all day about that, God knows we haven’t had much to be excited about in a while. The fans will and are slowly coming around but you don’t bounce back from decades of painful football in 6 weeks. Keep winning like this and you will turn this state into a FB/BB school. The people love their cats. They just needed something to give them hope again and Mark Stoops is giving them that and changing the attitude towards football in the process. I can’t say enough about what these coaches/players have done the last year and how proud that finally makes me as a UK football fan. I think they can prove that there is no ceiling on this program and that we can build something awesome and unique around this team. Go CATS! Make History! Start Saturday in Death Valley and prove the haters wrong!

    Reply

    1. Thanks a lot! Also, I completely agree on all fronts. The Ohio recruiting has been a godsend, and I have no idea why no UK coach thought to recruit that state (the 4th best football recruiting state in the nation behind Texas, Florida, and California). Joker always did great recruiting Tennessee and Georgia, but this is a whole new story. Grabbing the second tier recruits out of Ohio (Ohio State gets all the top tier guys) is EXACTLY how Michigan State turned themselves from middling Big 10 School to Rose Bowl champions, so theres no reason it can’t work for Kentucky too. Even with the disappointment of this past weekend I’m not too shook up. Winning IN Baton Rouge is not something many teams get to do. Having Mississippi State at home still gives us a major chance at an upset. I think worst case scenario we’ll at least keep it within 10.

      Reply

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