Kentucky's thrilling 45-38 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks last Saturday certainly got the old juices flowing. As we know, UK is a play away from a 5-0 start, but that isn't the whole story. Kentucky has competed week in and week out with a roster that no longer looks overmatched in the SEC. Though there are still some gaps here and there, Kentucky has shown that it has the horses to compete in a down East.
It isn't hard to see how this differs from recent years, but here is a shocking stat I unearthed last night out of sheer morbid curiosity. The Wildcats own a winning record in the SEC (2-1) for the first time since October 20, 2007. If that date doesn't ring a bell, it should. One week after a monumental win against then #1 LSU, the Cats welcomed the Florida Gators, Tim Tebow and ESPN Gameday to town. After a thrilling, hard fought 45-37 loss, Kentucky sat at 2-2 in the conference. While that team and the next three UK squads all went to bowls, at no point again had any won more SEC games than they'd lost. This team has.
The rest of the schedule is tough. Setting aside the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, the two most beatable opponents (from a Vegas standpoint) will be playing at home, and the Cats still play three ranked teams along with two that are literally just outside the top 25.
With that in mind, let's look at where the Cats stack up relative to the Rich Brooks' bowl teams of the late two thousand 'aughts. I'm leaving out Joker's first (2010) team, which limped in to the finish in the final year of Randall Cobb, Mike Hartline and Derrick Locke's illustrious careers and barely showed up for the BBVA Compass Bowl. (Not going to lie, I'm still bitter about that one)
Record after five games: 3-2, 1-1
Where they'd been: Cats were coming off a 45-36 win over Central Michigan and had defeated Ole Miss 31-14 at home the week before.
Where they were going: Kentucky took a frustrating home loss against USC 24-17 before the now well known 49-0 drubbing at LSU that left many calling for Brooks's head. To the extent UK football lore exists-the rest is part of it. Kentucky reeled off four straight wins (three in the SEC) on the way to an ecstatic upset of Clemson in the Music City Bowl. The lone loss was of course against Tennessee (17-12), and even then the Cats had a second and goal at the 3 with three minutes left before penalties and incomplete passes ended the threat.
Takaways: First and most importantly, the SEC of 2006 is not the SEC of 2014. UK got a big win against Georgia, but was blessed with three league games against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vandy, teams that simply weren't that good. UK has now had their game against a down Vanderbilt. The remaining schedule doesn't have the same weaknesses. After ULM, Kentucky may not be favored again if it does not win games in the interim.
Record after five games: 5-0, 1-0
Where they'd been: Kentucky had two huge wins sandwiched between three laughers. Of course in the Louisville game Stevie got looooooooooose. Kentucky beat Arkansas 42-29 the following week. You may remember that Razorback team had two decent running backs named Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Even though they had only played one SEC game, Louisville had been so highly regarded coming in that the Cats found themselves in the top ten.
Where they were going: After a disappointing 38-23 loss at South Carolina, Kentucky had its biggest win in recent memory, knocking off then #1 LSU in triple OT. Once again ranked in the top 10, Kentucky had a disappointing finish to close the regular season 7-5. Most would agree this was the best UK team of the 21st century, but an inexplicable 31-14 home loss to Mississippi State and a triple overtime heartbreaker (again at home) against Tennessee put a damper on an otherwise thrilling 8-5 year.
Takeways: Don't take anything for granted. I'll always remember 2007 fondly because of the moments it brought, even though the end result wasn't quite what we were expecting at mid-year. The loss to Mississippi State turned out to be a backbreaker and the only real upset Kentucky took in this entire run. It may have cost them a New Year's Day Bowl. That Kentucky team had jaw dropping skill position talent, which has only become more apparent with the pro success of Johnson and Jacob Tamme.
Record after five games: 4-1, 0-1
Where they'd been: After four non-con wins, including a strange 27-2 victory of the hapless and by then Steve Kragthorpe led Louisville Cardinals, Kentucky played admirably in a 17-14 loss at Tuscaloosa.
Where they were going: In a bizarre mixed bag of a year, Kentucky had dismal losses (63-5 loss to Florida), good losses (42-38 to Matt Stafford, AJ Green and Georgia) and two narrow SEC wins. The 21-20 come from behind victory against Arkansas (thanks Randall) stands out, but the Cats also pulled off a hideous 14-13 gut check against Mississippi State. Given all the losses on offense, (Woodson, Burton, Tamme, Johnson, Little) 2008 was a good surprise that ended in a Liberty Bowl win.
Takeaways: When Louisville was down, two SEC wins was enough to push the Cats to a Bowl. It may take three this year. While the Cardinals aren't the best team on the schedule, they are certainly not the worst power 5 team we'll face.
Record after five games: 2-3, 0-3
Where they'd been: Another example of things being darkest before dawn. UK was coming off a 28-26 loss to South Carolina that was a lot more than a frustrating defeat. Mike Hartline, who had been playing his best game ever, was lost for the season. Moreover, Papa Brooks was catching a lot of flak for not going to Cobb in the Wildcat for what would have been a game tying 2-pt conversion.
Where they were going: What followed was nothing short of miraculous. The Cats ran their record to 7-5 with three SEC road wins. The first was for the ages, a 21-14 comeback at Auburn. Two things stuck out. Kentucky won despite throwing for only 75 yards, and three different QBs (Cobb, Morgan Newton and Will Fidler) scored rushing touchdowns. Later, Kentucky took advantage of four Georgia turnovers and Newton's best game as a Wildcat (3 passing TDs) to win between the hedges. A loss overtime loss to Tennessee (who else) probably prevented a Chik-Fil-A Bowl berth and the Cats headed to Nashville for the third time in four years.
Takeaway: In final analysis, the 2009 team is the best comparison for this year's Wildcats. Yes, this is now a better and more balanced offense, and the defense may be a tad weaker than the 2009 team that featured Micah Johnson, Sam Maxwell and Trevard Lindley. But the 2009 team battled. This one does too. How easy would it have been for Kentucky to pull an el foldo last week? "Well hell, we could have done something special against Florida, but we didn't get it done and now we'll just go back to being Kentucky again." Damn easy. And I dare say that's what would have happened in the not too distant past. But even as South Carolina was getting out to two 14 point leads, I felt that if UK could just hang around, good things were going to happen.
Where this all leads is anyone's guess. Kentucky could end up with any number of wins and nothing south of ten or north of five would shock me. There may be a WTF blowout loss, or a good win followed by a crushingly bad run. Who knows. But I have to say, this team has not only talent, but some resolve. After what we've dealt with here lately, I'll take that.
With apologies to Don Henley, we haven't had that spirit here since 2009. It feels good.
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