Honk if you've heard this one..."Kentucky Football will never win in the SEC. It is a doormat program and will finish either in 5th or 6th (or 7th) in the SEC East. Call me when basketball season starts..." I heard the same from program fans and rivals alike ad nauseam, to the point that I began to not only accept the theory but assume it's truth as universal natural law. Then something strange occurred. While reading tweets from rival fans, I saw a < than 140 character blurb that said something to the effect of "Kentucky is a stepping-stone job, mid major type job in the SEC", and another that said "Kentucky is a graveyard for coaches". I had an epiphany...this wasn't true. I have been alive long enough to see eight football coaches at the University of Kentucky:
Fran Curci (Fired NCAA violations/Retired?)
Jerry Claibourne (Alma Mater / Retired)
Bill Curry (Left Alabama in a Contract dispute / Fired)
Hal Mumme (Unknown DII Coach previously / Fired NCAA Violations)
Guy Morriss (On Previous Staff) (Accepted Baylor Job)
Rich Brooks (Come out of retirement to help) (Retired)
Joker Phillips (OC on previous Staff / Fired)
Mark Stoops (Hot young Assistant / Just Hired)
All of those coaches either were rules violators, near the end of their coaching careers ("hasbeens"), unknowns, or products of previous staffs and/or staring down the barrel of NCAA sanctions. There were no "stepping stones", and those that found themselves in the "graveyard" either came with one foot already there or demonstrated severely lacking coaching skills and/or innovation to get them there. Interestingly Mark Stoops is the first hire of my lifetime that is the hot commodity assistant. future star coach.
The question is now, "Can he win the SEC championship?" I tend to think so...
I am not going to pretend that even casual UK football fans haven't considered the following, but this exercise really helped me see how UK in not as far from SEC relevancy and proficiency as main stream and many local media outlets would have you believe.
Let's remember back to October 13th, 2007...
"It proved we're a team that obviously earns a lot more respect now," (Andre) Woodson said after No. 17 Kentucky upset the Tigers 43-37 in triple overtime Saturday. "We've come a long way from being a doormat in the SEC to competing with the best teams in the SEC and getting some wins."
With this win Kentucky improved to 6-1 overall and 2-1 in the SEC. The next week UK lost to Florida, a game ESPN Gameday chose for its weekly College Football Show. Now let's get a little creative. Kentucky finished the season losing 3 of the final four games including a loss to unranked (and under manned) Mississippi State as well as 4 overtime thriller to Tennessee. I contend that these games, given small, non-talent related changes in circumstances (coaching decisions, schemes, etc.), could have conceivably swung in Kentucky's favor. This changes Kentucky's regular season record to 9-3 (5-3 SEC) good for a tie for second place in the SEC East.
2008 Kentucky finished the regular season 6-6 (2-6 SEC), a season in which conceivably UK could've defeated Georgia at home (Cobb intercepted on the 13 yard line late only down by 4), and Vanderbilt (upset). This reversal of fortune elevates Kentucky to 8-4 (4-4 SEC) regular season and into a tie for third in the east.
2009 Kentucky finished the regular season 7-5 (3-5 SEC). Only two losses, Alabama (38-20) and Florida (41-7), were conceivably out of range. The other losses included the likes of South Carolina (2 points), Mississippi State (a touchdown), and Tennessee (6 points). Six SEC wins in 2009 would have garnered a outright second place finish in the East and would have been 3rd best record in the entire conference.
2010 (Joker's first year) is where it gets interesting. Kentucky finished the regular season 2-6 in the SEC, however 3 of those losses were within a touchdown including a thrilling 3 point come-from-far-behind loss to eventual national champion Auburn. For discussion sake, let's assume UK wins these three games against Auburn and the Mississippi Schools. 5-3 in the SEC East in 2010 is a tie for first with South Carolina, which Kentucky beat head to head. This would've been Kentucky's first ever trip to the SEC Championship game.
Now many can argue, especially with losses in mediocre bowls games in 2009 and 2010, that Auburn would have beaten UK by 40 on the national SEC Championship stage, or that higher profile bowl matchups could've exposed Kentucky in its talent deficiencies. However, one could also argue that increased exposure (even in a loss) would go a long way in capturing the 3 to 5 four star recruits each year that will eventually lead to sustained football success.
Speaking of 3 to 5 four star recruits. I spent yesterday evening perusing recruiting websites and it appears even in an extremely abbreviated recruiting season for Stoops's Troops, those 4 star guys are starting to take notice. We all anxiously await the results of a couple of full recruiting seasons for this staff. I can't help but hope and truly believe we are on the cusp of something dynamic and potentially very special for UK football.
Going forward Kentucky should be able to compete on a regular basis with Missouri, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, Additionally if the SEC West draw includes the Mississippi Schools or Arkansas/Auburn in a down year, Kentucky can compete for a Championship. Throw in the yearly upset we became somewhat accustomed to in the Rich Brooks era who knows what can happen. Despite the struggles of the past couple of years, UK football is not the perenial downtrodden program as suggeted by our rivals.
Can we hurry up and get through this basketball season already and get to some spring football?