As we inch closer to the showdown with Vanderbilt this weekend, I wanted to stop and take a hard look at what is on the line for the Wildcats. Before the season started, popular opinion was that UK had a good shot at getting its first SEC win in over two years this weekend. While that is still the case, there is much more than just a conference win in play for UK and all of Big Blue Nation.
The Losing Streak
Joker Phillips was roaming the sidelines and Matt Roark was under center. CoShik Williams scored the only Cats touchdown of the day and the leading receiver was Nick Melillo. That was the last time Kentucky won a conference game. They had just eliminated a 26 game losing streak to Tennessee, and although the axe did not fall until the next season, it effectively ended the employment of Derek Dooley.
Since ending the 26 game losing streak to Tennessee, the 'Cats have endured an exhausting and laborious 17-game SEC losing streak. The losses have been sometimes brutally heart-wrenching (two weeks ago in The Swamp), sometimes expected (the majority of those 17), sometimes embarrassing (quasi-mercy rule at 2-4 Arkansas in the rain), but altogether disheartening.
This coming weekend, Kentucky gets a chance to exorcise those demons. While there are only three guys playing this weekend that had significant playing time in the 2011 UT game (Bud Dupree, Demarco Robinson, and Ashely Lowery), the program that touts "change the game" will have a chance to do just that on behalf of those who have fallen before them.
Coach Mark Stoops has recruited unlike any other coach at Kentucky, and there are significant targets taking a wait and see approach on how they feel about UK. Although it was a loss, the game in Gainesville earned Kentucky a lot of respect and newfound intrigue amongst those top priorities. The fact UK went into The Swamp, stood toe-to-toe with a historically dominant SEC team, and legitimately handled a top-notch group of talent sent a clear message UK was not far behind in the SEC arms race. The question remains, however, was it more UK jumping a level or more Florida being "2013 Florida".
If Kentucky comes out of Saturday with a significant win and shows it is no longer a program in purgatory, it could pay significant dividends with recruits and prove the former. On the other hand, if they struggle to an unimpressive win or worse, it could prove to ruin a lot of momentum and stall the Yahtzee's.
The Fan Base
The last time the fan based decided to send a message was coincidentally versus Vanderbilt two years ago. That message was that a change was required and not suggested. This week it is becoming apparent the fan base can, and possibly will, send another message. That message would be that we are back on board, fully. A lot fans out there were so put off by the Joker years that they still have not bought back in.
Last year, Joker Phillips didn't even know Drew Barker had just participated in his camp...at Kentucky. http://t.co/yECf9kXkQi— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) May 6, 2013
My fellow A Sea of Blue author James Streble recently wrote this article detailing his particular part in that group. There are many more like that and this weekend will be a determining factor if they jump on board the Stoops train or keep the wait and see approach.
Before this season there were very few people predicting more than four wins. Some said three, some said five, and the Vegas prediction was four. While I am still largely alone in my July prediction of seven wins, the consensus seems to be 5-6 wins as the barometer for this season. There is very little chance of five or more wins without this Vandy game being one of them.
A convincing win that reaffirms the players confidence and energizes the fan base with a nighttime showdown with South Carolina around the corner... at that point who knows what spoils this season could hold. While a struggling win would still be a conference win, it would slow the momentum and likely take away from the confidence of the players and fans going forward. A loss could derail the entire year and put a 4-win season on the doorstep.
The Big MO
Kentucky is a program on an uptick that is being noticed at a national level.
I know UK fans are tired of moral victories. But the program under @UKCoachStoops will make more noise this year. Watch out!— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) September 14, 2014
- Recruiting has never been better.
- UK has played a big part in revolutionizing high performance training with Erik Korem.
- Money is being thrown at the program like never before.
- Roster with more future NFL players than likely ever before.
- Support from the university has never been higher (ask Rich Brooks how important that is).
What does Rich Brooks think about where UK football stands? He thinks UK needs to invest more $ into the program: http://t.co/uvMPhBVI— Matt May (@MattMayKY) September 19, 2011
Mark Stoops approached UK and Mitch Barnhart about this job. Stoops pursued this job with a plan in place and with a fervor that no doubt played a big part in his hiring. Since he signed his first contract, he has not let his foot off the pedal as he promised change. To this point he has fully delivered, and is ahead of pace with where most thought he would be.
This weekend is a chance for Stoops to put the proverbial nail in the coffin of the prior regime's mess and declare this new era for Kentucky in a big way. There is no doubt things are different from before, only a blind and deaf person could think otherwise. While frustrating and regressing, a loss to Vanderbilt would not mean any different in the overall scheme. However, the win that should happen this weekend would mean that the game has officially changed. I am looking forward to it.