The first game of the Mark Stoops era may be the most important one of the entire season. August 31st in Nashville marks the official beginning of a new dawn for Kentucky football. The practices, the interviews, the recruiting, and the speculation were all just a part of one big prologue leading up to the main narrative.
The game versus the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers is important on multiple fronts; but here five reasons are given as to why this specific game is crucial not only for the rest of the season, but for the success of Stoops and his staff going forward.
1. Confidence- Many of the players on the team remember the complete degradation they felt after an abysmal 2-10 season in which they were defeated by WKU and did not win a single SEC game. They were battered both physically and mentally by the end of the year. Joker Phillips left a group that had their collective spirit broken.
Stoops came in and immediately started to repair that spirit by recruiting at an unprecedented level, getting players to buy in to a winning mentality, getting fans to once again come out in droves to support their team, and by introducing a new workout program that has transformed their bodies thanks to Eric Korem.
You can tell by listening to the players that they have a new-found confidence in their talents and abilities. An 0-1 start against a lower-level in-state team on a neutral field would all but shatter any gained momentum. It doesn't matter if they win by one or thirty points, at the end of the game the Wildcats need to be the team with the most. A result other than that would not be the end of the world but it would be borderline devastating to these players, many who will be young and looking for a boost of confidence that allows them to believe that they are ready to compete at the collegiate level.
2. The Respect Factor- Western Kentucky hasn't had much respect for the Wildcats the past two seasons. The players that have been here a while must remember the "They ‘sposed to be SEC" comment by Hilltopper Andrew Jackson. Sure, UK won that game, but it wasn't pretty and it was by the skin of their teeth.
The next game was in 2012 at Commonwealth Stadium. WKU led most of the game and Kentucky actually had to battle back to win. But a trick play in overtime that was a near disaster defeated the Wildcats and started the downward spiral that was to doom Joker and his team the rest of the way. Former WKU coach Willie Taggert memorably stated in his postgame remarks that the room he was in needed to be painted red. Kentucky used to be feared by the Hilltoppers but no longer. They feel that they are Kentucky's equals and some even feel superior.
That can't happen moving forward for this program. UK needs to get back to dominating the team from Bowling Green. Going tit-for-tat with Louisville is one thing; doing it with WKU is unacceptable.
3. Bobby Petrino Has it Coming- The motorcycle maniac has had it coming for a while. He was a thorn in Kentucky's side at Louisville. Here are the scores he has put up against the ‘Cats:
As a Cardinal: Win 40-24; Win 28-0; Win 31-24; Win 59-28
As a Razorback: Loss 20-21
The last time the Wildcats saw him they were victorious but the animosity from his time at Louisville still lingers. Petrino was always dismissive towards Kentucky and flat out hated the Wildcats while he was a Card. Things changed when the disgraced coach was out of a job and trying desperately to get back into the SEC. There was talk of interest in Kentucky from Petrino and his father. There was a movement amongst some of the fans to get him hired.
But Stoops was named as the head man and Bobby P. ended up at WKU. He would love nothing better to extend the Hilltopper's win streak to 2-0 and to start a new one of his own. That cannot happen. There will be a contingent of UK fans that would start the "We should have hired Petrino" drum beat. Stoops needs to start right off by beating an all-time UK villain.
4. The Schedule Doesn't Get Any Easier- After WKU, Kentucky travels back to Commonwealth Stadium to take on Miami of Ohio before starting The Gauntlet: a four game stretch against Louisville, Florida, at South Carolina, and versus Alabama. The Wildcats do get to relax on open dates after they play the Cardinals and the Crimson Tide, but going into that stretch 1-1 or worse is unimaginable. WKU is one of the easier games on their schedule and that is another reason why they must claim victory. Is it a gimme game? No, but it's almost as close as Kentucky gets to one this season. If the ‘Cats start 2-0 and build that confidence that was previously discussed, then an upset along the way isn't out of the realm of possibility.
5. It Wouldn't Look Good to Recruits If Kentucky Lost- Stoops has done the unthinkable at Kentucky by propelling the Wildcats into the upper echelon of national recruiting rankings. Big names have committed to play for him and some big names still remain very real possibilities. If there is one thing that is common knowledge about high school boys is that the can be extremely fickle. Right now they are buying into the Stoops message and the plan. They surely expect struggles against the SEC powers this season but a loss to WKU might now sit well with them at all.
How can Stoops sell progress and future success after losing to what should be a markedly inferior opponent? What tone does that set going forward in the season? If they lose to Western, they almost have to pull some kind of major upset in order to again show that they are going in the right direction. Recruits stay on twitter and other types of social media; they will see the negativity and the ridicule spewed by rival fans and the media. Kids will be kids and kids will be fickle. It's as assured as death and taxes.
What do you think? Is the WKU game the most important game of the year? Does a loss to the ‘Toppers doom the Wildcats going forward or is this a big overreaction?