With yesterday's 42-38 loss to Georgia, the Unversity of Kentucky Wildcats now stand at 6-4 (2-4 conference). For those of us who used to think Wildcat football was some kind of intramural thing to fill the interregnum between basketball seasons, these last three years have represented a conversion from the occasional jubilation of an upset to the more thoughtful reflection of actual fanhood. It has been a fun conversion for me, and coming full circle from my high school playing days and professional football fandom of yore to not really caring about football to being a college football fan has been an interesting journey. Self-reflection aside, I thought I would take stock of where UK has been, where they are, and where they might be headed.
Where we have been
Kentucky's team this year has been, in many ways, typical of Kentucky teams since 2006. One or the other side of the football has been very much SEC quality, while the other has not. In recent years the offense has shined, and this year it is the defense that has been superior.
Of course, it is pretty easy to see that UK's program under Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips has turned a significant corner in its history. The gradual but noticeable uptick in recruiting year over year, the increased depth (particularly in the lines), and the gradual increase in SEC-quality athletes on both sides of the ball are testament to the effectiveness of the coaching staff in resurrecting this program. Unlike the days of Hal Mumme when our deficiencies were largely masked by a fortunate acquisition of skill players and an offensive system that was new and then very difficult to stop, this team as we know it today has been built from the ground up to be an SEC program with particular attention to the lines, which had been largely ignored in the Mumme eara.
Steve Brown has done a good job in his two years as defensive coordinator in producing quality defensive play over the course of the season. We have seen improvement from last year to this, and hopefully that trend will continue. Kentucky has had good defenses in the past, but what we have seen over the last few years is a gradual but purposeful development and improvement, and for my money, that is the right way to get to long-term success.
Where we are
Where we are today is a lower-tier SEC program that is knocking on the door of becoming a consistent mid-tier performer. Historically, the SEC has a rather unique stratification that divides the league essentially into thirds. The upper third almost always comes from teams like Florida, Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee and Auburn. The middle third is rather more fungible, usually including two of the above, South Carolina, Arkansas, Ole Miss or MSU. The bottom third usually consisted of Kentucky, Vanderbilt, one or both of the Mississippis, and occasionally one of the top or middle tier teams in rebuilding mode.
Kentucky has now moved itself from a traditional bottom dweller to a much more consistent team finding itself more and more often in the mid-pack. This looked like where we may have been headed when we went to back-to-back bowls in 1998 and 1999, but cheating relegated us back to a 5-year stint at or near bottom of the league. Even if UK manages no more wins this year, they will have managed three six-win or greater seasons in a row, and that is something which hasn't been achieved at Kentucky since the 1950's. Three straight bowl appearances (which are likely now, but not yet certain) have not happened since Bear Bryant stalked the sidelines in Lexington.
Despite Kentucky's most recent loss to Georgia, there is reason for optimism. We can be confident that Brooks and Brown will address the defensive failures that allowed the Dawgs to produce 520 total yards and 42 points in Commonwealth Stadium, and Phillips can build on the performance of his newly-installed triple-option/pro-style hybrid that embodies the option and pro-style plays in almost equal measure, and comes away looking like a kind of spread-option variant. Both of the remaining two schools on the Kentucky schedule, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, have capable defenses that will require UK to be as efficient on offense as they were yesterday for a victory. Both will also require a much better defensive performance.
Regardless of these obstacles, a seventh win looks pretty likely for this team, and that will be cause for raucous celebration among the Wildcat football faithful. The efforts of the football team may get overwhelmed by the advent of basketball season and the big games that loom just on the horizon, but here at A Sea of Blue, we will live in the here and now for our Gridiron Felines -- they have more than earned it.
Where we are going
The true test of this football team will be the years going forward from now, because where we are now is a place we have been before in history, albeit rarely. Beginning next year, Rich Brooks & Co. will have a rare chance -- an opportunity to rewrite the Kentucky football legacy into something that has not been seen in modern times. A forth straight bowl appearance would be virtually unprecedented for Kentucky, and an announcement that Kentucky's perennial doormat status has been more or less permanently revoked.
That future looks really good right now. We can see the improvement of UK's young players game over game, the 2009 Kentucky recruiting class is likely the best in recent memory, and there is no reason to believe that the Wildcats will not be as or more competitive in the SEC next year than they are this year.
While I am loath to state that Kentucky football has finally arrived as a solid mid-pack SEC team, at this particular moment it looks very likely that we have. Obviously, a continued stay and even upward movement within the mid-strata will require a continued commitment to great recruiting and sound coaching, but Brooks, Phillips & Co. have given us no reason to believe that is likely to change for the worse.
In summary, never in history has it been a better time to be a Kentucky Wildcat football fan. Even this year, which could arguably be said to be a rebuilding year particularly from an offensive standpoint, the Wildcats have managed to guarantee that they will not have a losing season, and are looking very good for a bowl.
It is a good feeling, and the long climb out of the darkness and despair of the early part of this new century is finally giving way to something like what Gandalf the Gray described in his vision of Valinor: "Then you see it. White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."
Nothing lasts forever, but here in the now, it is a good time to be a Kentucky football fan.