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Do the signs Kentucky fans have seen in the last two games indicate a team about to start winning, or just an excuse for false hope?
Kentucky Wildcats fans have seen some signs of a football team emerge from the wreckage of their last two defeats. But are these signs just the inevitable, accidental sort of success that lower-level teams often seem to exhibit, often due as much to being overlooked as anything else, or does it represent real improvement that could lead to more success on the field?
Kentucky played very well against the Florida Gators on defense in the first quarter, and for short stretches throughout the game. Florida, at home and still vastly superior, overwhelmed the Wildcats in the second quarter and beyond on their way to a 38-0 domination of the Wildcats. The defense was made to look worse than it was due to the complete ineptitude of the offense, which directly contributed 7 points to the Gator cause and were responsible for at least three more.
Despite their ineptitude, the offense did run the ball surprisingly well against Florida, gaining 158 yards, more than any team who have played the Gators up until then. The biggest problem was that Kentucky could not throw the ball, and that imbalance was simply too much for the running game to make up for, especially with the loss of their starting QB before the game.
Against the South Carolina Gamecocks, Maxwell Smith was once again lost to injury, forcing freshman Jalen Whitlow to step in and try to run the limited amount of plays he has been able to assimilate to date. Despite that, the Wildcats recovered a fumble and blocked a punt, and wound up going in with a 10-point halftime lead. South Carolina played better in the second half and Marcus Lattimore ran all over Kentucky's defense, and the UK offense became ineffective due to turnovers and a strong South Carolina rush.
But there is no doubt that this Kentucky team is looking, at times, competitive with teams they've played in the SEC, both of whom are ranked in this week's AP top ten. Yet another top 25 team, Mississippi St. comes to Commonwealth Stadium next weekend, and once again, the Wildcats will give fans a chance to judge their improvement.
But after those three weeks of murderer's row, the schedule gets just a bit less daunting, although if Kentucky is to amass some wins before the end of the season, they're mostly going to have to do it on the road. I don't think the Wildcats have much of a chance against the Georgia Bulldogs, but they almost certainly do against the 1-3 Arkansas Razorbacks, the 3-2 Missouri Tigers, the 1-3 Vanderbilt Commodores, and the 3-2 Tennessee Volunteers.
But if that's going to happen, some other things need to happen first. Most importantly, Smith needs to return at quarterback. Second, the running back corps must get healthier. Third, the overall health of the Wildcats must improve at least somewhat and fourth, the improvement we have seen from the young freshmen and sophomores must continue apace.
Realistically, it does seem a long shot. Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee, which don't look nearly as strong as the two teams Kentucky has played, are all road games, and winning on the road in the SEC is really, really hard even under the best of circumstances. A rational look at the schedule from here on in would see at most three wins, two against SEC teams and one against FCS Samford. That doesn't exactly qualify as a "run" in my book, although it might if the current four-game stretch is used for comparison.
How much can Kentucky improve their current miserable lot? I really don't know, but the second half of the SEC schedule at least offers a realistic, if very difficult, opportunity for that to happen. I doubt Kentucky will be favored in any game save possibly vs. Vanderbilt and certainly vs. Samford, but the games above all look at least theoretically competitive.
But only if a lot more things go right than have so far.