Why UofL can get the ‘Cats right…or continue down a worrying downward spiral.
The news for Kentucky football has been largely bad. Saturday’s 17-14 loss at South Carolina did nothing to change that pattern. The Wildcats’ defense was solid, but they only lost enough plays to advance. The offense was rough, outgaining Carolina and going 6 for 13 on third down but turning the ball over 3 times. To a large extent, Kentucky’s momentum – to the extent there is none – is a downward spiral.
Kentucky finished 5-0 in September, thanks to a convincing 33-14 win over a Florida team that had just knocked off Tennessee. Now, the Wildcats enter the regular season finale at 6-5, far from being on the outside of the bowl picture. There’s not much to like about this team.
Always designed as a bend-but-don’t-break attack, the defense has become more than just a yoga superstar. In the middle, Devin Leary fluctuates between outright disaster and promising disappointment in the middle. The two most popular wide receivers have issues – Baryon Brown has been overrated, and Dane Key has been inconsistent. Almost the only upside on an individual level is Ray Davis, who is creeping his way to a 1,000-yard rushing season — and you couldn’t tell that from Saturday’s rush to take the place of UK’s best player on the field for too many snaps.
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Mark Stoops built his success at Kentucky on beating teams he should have beaten, and then had a bit of luck in the lineup. But in the past two seasons, Kentucky has lost to Vanderbilt, Missouri State, and twice to South Carolina. The punching didn’t go well. A 10-3 season in 2021 would cover up many of the blemishes, but it might have to, because otherwise, Kentucky has gone 5-6, 7-6 and now 6-5 over the other three of the past four seasons.
So what will fix things?
Well, beat the crap out of Louisville. But this is easier said than done.
Even though Kentucky stumbled to Georgia and Alabama and was dropped by Missouri and Tennessee, there was always a belief that Louisville was the first battle the Wildcats would dominate.
After all, Kentucky has not only won the past four games in the series, it has done so by an overall margin of 179-57.
But this isn’t Scott Satterfield’s Louisville team.
Facing Kentucky’s slow but steady rise under Stoops, Louisville struggled through Round 2.0 with Bobby Petrino and then the thick mediocrity of the Satterfield years.
So I went out and brought home Cardinal Jeff Broome from Purdue. While Prom-Bordeaux teams pick up a lot of points, they usually end up with strong but unexciting comeback seasons. Brumm went 36-34 in West Lafayette, so British fans could be forgiven if they didn’t shudder.
Now Louisville is 10-1, 10th in the national rankings and headed to the ACC Championship game. In the first year, Brohm gave Louisville a shot at prestige. His team was finding ways to win games…just as Kentucky was finding creative ways to lose them.
For one thing, competing in Louisville isn’t a big deal right now for Big Blue Nation. The 9-game SEC schedule is coming, and when it does, the Wildcats will abandon their annual game with the Cardinals faster than bad habit. Of course, UK is a member of the SEC, while Louisville is stuck in the struggling SEC.
But on the other hand, Stoops and his staff began to get long on pay and hype and short on results. A $9 million annual salary for 7-6 types of seasons won’t keep even the pickiest fans happy in Lexington.
Kentucky’s sweltering summer pace combines with 1-5 results in its final 6 games of the season to put UK close to Siberia in the SEC. It’s a nice place of exile for Davis, but forgive the kids from, say, Texas A&M if they’re not looking to escape 7-5 seasons for something a little better than other 7-5 seasons.
Kentucky and Louisville will be as much about importance as it is about rivalry. If Stoops can turn the season around and humiliate the Cardinals, not only will he retain in-state bragging rights, he will make a very good argument that the new era of the NIL and the search for a transfer portal hasn’t caused the game to pass him by.
And if not?
Well, Kentucky fans would rather avoid thinking about that.