Background: Before the Kentucky Wildcats' 2009 season I wrote a little piece looking at the coming season in the most favorable light possible, rooted in pure irrational fandom.
The annually ritual continued under the Irrational Exuberance banner, but was in peril of being discontinued for the 2013 season. During the 2012 year, we found out the fairly tale story of a local talent reaching coaching heights was being written by the Brothers Grimm, not Mother Goose.
During that season, I gave Mitch Barnhart an ultimatum - "It's either Joker or Irrational Exuberance, one won't be around next year. It's your call.".
Well, we know how that turned out.
Since Mark Stoops took over, I've be rejuvenated much like the rest of the BBN. There's a new atmosphere, a rise in talent, a coach with a plan and an administrative commitment like we've hadn't seen since the '70s. This improvement has also posed a dilemma. Irrational Exuberance used to be an exercise in extreme fantasy, knowing that each season would quickly go down in flames. With the momentum of improvement in Stoops' teams, it now becomes a little less of a reach for the same goals. That's not to say we're a shoe-in even to a bowl game, but we've entered a period where the BBN is all but certain that better times are indeed here.
So let's take a look at 2015. Yes, we'll still ignore logic, chug massive quantities of blue Kool-Aid, belittle our worthy opponents, hope for miracles, assume the impossible and press forward with our dreams of UK Football Respectability. It's what we do.
This year will establish Kentucky Football as a legitimate SEC football team. No longer will we be penciled in as a guaranteed win by our opponents (I'm looking at you, Florida), no longer will teams dust off the previous year's game plan, no longer will we be referred to as Punter U. Are other teams getting worse? Nope, we're just getting better – much better. This year, after two years of tangible growth and improvement, Kentucky has a bonafide football team and will kick some SEC ass! (Could you have said even two years ago with a straight face?)
So sit back, relax, grab a favorite drink and enjoy the 2015 campaign. If you want to refute anything here …...... don't, it really happened. It's the best dream I'll have all year, let it live; at least until it meets the harsh reality of the actual season.
Why is Kentucky better?
Holy crap! Have you been living under a rock? The ASOB staff has done a great job detailing how Kentucky has raised the bar and improved in many areas: Offensive Scheming, Defense, D-Tackles, D-Line, D-Backs, Inside Linebacker, O-Line, Running Backs, Receivers and Special Teams. In the days to come there will be even more fodder showing the upgrading continues on a team-wide basis, not just in talent but in depth.
Beyond the ones above, is there any question another year of experience makes (insert any player's name) better? Last year's team was very young and our lack of depth/talent forced many players onto the field without the benefit of redshirt year or even spending a season in a non-critical backup role. And the brutality of the last half of the season took a toll on a young, thin team. Last year's quandary leads to this year's benefit. Across the board, UK gained valuable experience at every position; we are adding last year's redshirts and another good recruiting class to make us deeper everywhere, almost.
"Almost"? On the offense, we improve at every position. No contest. Even the harshest critic couldn't put forth an argument that any position on offense has gotten weaker. Defensively, we'll initially be weaker at Outside Linebacker but the improvements at all of the other positions more than offset any falloff at the edges, whether through Dupree/Smith moving on to the NFL or lack of outside bodies due to suspension/injury/sickness.
Thankfully, the latter is just temporary. On defense, pressure can now come from anywhere in the maturing, balanced multiple defense. Don't forget we also added Coach Andy Buh to help address our defensive shortcoming of last year and hasten the needed defensive improvement. The only other area approaching the "almost" is special teams where we have no dedicated coach.
But as my 5th-grade teacher pointed out, zero is greater than a negative number. I look to special teams to actually be much better. Our kicking game continues on with talented legs, but our return teams look to have a breakout year. That improving depth seen across the team can't all get starts on offense or defense, but they will certainly have immense talent to the special teams.
I could go on forever detailing the improvements, but the result is the same – we're better. We're better because Coach Stoops and his staff have worked relentlessly to assure UK Football players are bigger, faster, stronger, leaner and deeper in addition to gaining last year's experience. Our offensive and defensive plans are sound and fit the personnel, our facilities are worthy and the BBN is rabid for actually seeing real football played in the Commonwealth – it's been way, way too long.
Now that we've briefly covered the quantum improvements in our team let's move on to see the mayhem they created this fall.
Game 1 – University of Louisiana, Lafayette at home
The Ragin' Cajuns come into Lexington looking to topple their first Power 5 conference foe. Led by an excellent coach in Mark Hudspeth, compiling 9 – 4 records and winning the New Orleans Bowl the past four years. He's even smart enough to use ULL's last scrimmage to practice the kicking game (punting), third down situations and getting players on and off the field. Just before the game, Commonwealth Stadium 2.0 was still being spit polished in places by Mitch Barnhart and the only snag was the Ragin Cajuns' buses being unable to figure out how to exit the roundabout on Alumni Drive.
For the game, there was good news and bad news for ULL. The good news – McGuire notched another 100-yard game (105); the bad news – it took 50 carries. The Ragin Cajuns started the game throwing the ball all over the field trying to find their star receiver, Robinson while determining who was their best quarterback. Bad news – Kentucky had more interceptions than ULL had completions. After proving their ineptitude at the passing game, McGuire was used to run out the clock.... starting half way through the 2nd quarter. It just wasn't their day. Defensively they did manage to snag a tipped pass deep in Kentucky territory and kicked a ULL record field goal on 4th and forever.
On the other side of the ball, UK played very conservatively, not wanting to tip their hand to upcoming opponents. Conservative was more than ULL could handle. Runs through gaping holes in the middle and pass and catch plays drawn up in the huddle (Sharpies work great on turf!) were enough to keep the crowd roaring in their shiny "new" surroundings. Horton dealt some pain in the running game.
Final UK 42, ULL 3
Game 2 – at South Carolina
Jojo was the man against USC last year, scoring three touchdowns, one from the Wildcat. This year was no different for Jojo as he once again proved to be Spurrier's water hazard. South Carolina was looking for revenge and came into Williams-Brice Stadium fired up after the beat down of North Carolina in a Week 1 Thursday night ESPN game.
At first, it seemed the Gamecocks were going to repeat that performance with a quick score on the opening drive of the game, but an 80-yard Towles to Johnson bomb quickly quieted the crowd on the next possession. From then on both defenses stiffened and neither team could mount a consistent attack. South Carolina got two delay of game penalties while Spurrier was running a game of musical chairs for QB position. Finally, in the fourth quarter UK found its offense. A couple great completions to Timmons, Montgomery, Bone and Baker perked up the offense then Stoops revived the Jojo wildcat for a TD run to take the lead and then Jojo up the middle repeatedly to run out the clock. As a side note, that night Spurrier was pulled over on I-26 on his way to Hilton Head, in his golf cart.
Final UK 28, USC 17
Game 3 – Florida at home
There are certain great events occur and you never forget where you were at the time. For me, there was Kennedy's assassination, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, US over USSR hockey and PeeWee Herman getting caught playing with himself in a porn movie theater. (Okay, maybe not the last one.) 2015 represented what seemed like the best chance since the dinosaur of beating the hated Gators.
Kentucky brought a much better team than the one that lost in 3 OTs in Gainesville last year, Florida had a new head coach, new offensive and defensive coordinators, new quarterback, new receivers and less than a handful of offensive starters returning from the disappointing 2014 team. The game was being played in front of a wild sellout crowd at Commonwealth and with the betting line set at "pick'em" the scene was set for a memorable game. It proved to be worth the price of admission, even the ridiculous prices charged by the scalpers (Stub Hub).
Florida started on offense and quickly decided they wanted to play defense by fumbling the ball on the second play. UK made quick work of the possession with Towles delivering a strike to Johnson for a quick TD. Florida punted on their next possession (and the next... and the next) and UK's return team continually made great returns. The game was going incredible and Kentucky took a commanding 21 -7 lead into halftime. In the second half, things changed. Demarcus Robinson caught a quick pass, made a few cuts and, zoom, into the end zone (PAT blocked).
A couple of possessions later Kentucky fumbled and the Gators quickly scored; things were getting worrisome and fans were getting restless. Not to worry, UK defense shut down Florida's anemic offense and the Kentucky offense had a field day. Boom scored from 40 yards out, then Towles connected with Herrick, Johnson, Timmons, Bone, Conrad, Badet, Montgomery and the hot dog man in section 105.
Hargreaves was left a whimpering heap from trying to cover the entire secondary. The rout was on and the sirens melted from overuse. Classes were called off for a week and Governor Beshear declared a state holiday (except for Louisville). I'll always remember where I was that day and thankful I was sober so I could remember every delicious detail of the evisceration.
Final UK 48, Florida 20
Game 4 – Missouri at home
Just who are these guys? They come into the SEC as what seemed like an afterthought, stumbled through their first SEC season then come back to win the SEC East, twice! Newlywed Coach Pinkel lost a lot of talent off of last year's team, most notably at receiver and across the defense. What they did return was the SEC's winningest QB starter (Malk) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Hansbrough) along with a good LB corp.
Sorry, not enough. With little to throw to, Malk continues to build on his reign as the interception king. UK's defense stops the passing game cold and manages to snag 3 before Pinkel scraps the passing game to concentrate on Hansbrough running the ball. UK's defense also concentrates on Hansbrough and he has a rough afternoon.
Mizzou's season warm-ups with Southeast Missouri, Arkansas State and Connecticut did not prepare them for the buzz saw at Commonwealth Stadium. Towles and his receivers really started to get on stride, the running game was reliable (Boom for 150 yards) and the defense had Mizzou on their heels the whole game. There were a couple of hiccups (fumble, broken tackles) but overall the Cats win over the Tigers started to get UK some wider publicity.
Final UK 24, Mizzou 14
Game 5 – Eastern Kentucky at home
This game got ugly from the start. Sihiem King returns the opening kick-off for a TD, our first TD return since 2009. (Later he also returns a punt for a TD, first since 2010.) EKU gets smothered when on offense although former Cat, Dy-Shawn Mobley turns in a respectable 90-yard performance on 15 carries. On defense, UK showed that, yes, there are an SEC team.
They ran at will, passed at will and built a huge halftime lead, which of course led to Barker playing the entire second half. His performance served two purposes to the max. First, his 18-for-20 passing and command of the offense proved the QB competition was for real. Secondly, his total domination of the EKU defense extracted revenge for the cheap shots he received last year when taking in the exhilarating Richmond night life; which obviously is second only to Vegas. Commonwealth is becoming the killing field.
Final UK 62, EKU 10
Game 6 - Auburn at home
Before the season this seemed to be a no-brainer "upset alert" when pundits were looking for where top teams might stumble. (Sorry, but I'm talking about Auburn.) The odd Thursday night game, in a hostile environment and against a team coming off of a bye. Add to that the current Kentucky winning streak and the stage was set for a helluva game.
Earlier Auburn had blistered Louisville in the opener, marched into Baton Rouge to embarrass LSU and easily handled Mississippi State at home. A team coming off those wins entering a hostile stadium was set up for the upset.
Wellllllllll...... somebody forgot to tell Auburn. Kentucky kept it close throughout the game with spectacular runs and pin point passing in critical situations and they were going toe-to-toe with the #3 team in the country; even making new DC Will Muschamp's defense look pedestrian. But whenever UK scored Auburn answered, and then some.
Towles had two inexplicable interceptions trying to throw into tight windows and Boom had an uncharacteristic fumble. Turnovers – they'll kill you; and in this case it cost us a game. The defense was burned a few times as are all defenses that face Malzahn's frenetic offense but made some inspiring stops. It wasn't enough.
Final UK 30, Auburn 35
Game 7 – at Missississississippi State
Stoops hates road trips to the garden destination in the SEC. The team left on Wednesday in order to take a big plane, a small plane, a bus (w/transfer) then a convoy of oxcarts to reach Starkville. Nevertheless, it didn't dampen the spirits of the Wildcats. With their honed skills on offensive and defensive hand signals, the players plugged their ears from the sound of cowbells and took care of business. Nothing spectacular, just a business trip to a Mississippi cow pasture to slaughter some dogs.
Neal Brown's Troy team gave MSU's defense trouble with the hurry up offense so Kentucky did the same, at warp speed. The addition of a solid running game has given the team the ability to eat up time and give the defense a rest when needed. That ability enabled Dawson to call his best game of the year. Kentucky chugs or flies down the field as needed while MSU is kept off his rhythm by the defense blitzed seemingly coming from everywhere. Dak Prescott even kept looking over his shoulder after the game was over. Overall, not an exciting win but a great win over an SECW team.
We're going bowling!! UK 37, MSU 21
Game 8 – Tennessee at home
Coming off of a hammering by Arkansas then Georgia, a bye week then a schooling by Alabama, the Vols limp into Commonwealth looking to turn things around. Keep looking you orange bastards! (Sorry, dislike of anything UT is sometimes uncontrollable.)
Tennessee entered the season as the SEC East darling, but Butch Jones is speechless after falling on hard times with four losses since Oklahoma also had their way. Sure, the Vols have a good defense but the offense is impotent without a front line. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara are reduced to playing Smear with the Kentucky defense as Tennessee executed its olé offense.
With the ground game going nowhere, Dobbs spends much of the day running for his life looking for receivers, blitzing becomes a way of life. He later changed his major from Aerospace Engineering to Prey. On offense, Dawson unleashes Conrad to loosen the edges and the Towles to Conrad connection is unstoppable. Sure the other receivers got their 50 receptions but Conrad was the man.
With the secondary softened up like a jelly donut they had no effective matchups in the secondary then Kentucky ran.... and ran.... and ran. Horton exposed more soft jelly up the middle to put Tennessee away.
Rejoice, UK is for real. UK 28, UT 10
Game 9 - at Georgia
Who would have thought the Georgia-Kentucky game would be played for the lead of the SEC East. Both teams entered the contest with their only loss being to an SEC West team, Game Day was on-site, the game was the ABC game of the week with Kirk Herbstreit and Brent "The Ogler" Musberger and the nation were watching.
Simply put, Kentucky was on a streak and Georgia was living up to preseason hype. Up to this point, Kentucky had seen some great running backs and some great offensive lines but no team had shown a combination of the two.
Georgia did. Big time.
UK fans quickly had flashbacks to "old Kentucky" when the Bulldogs line manhandled the defensive line of the Wildcats and Chubb went to work; he almost made Georgia fans forget Herschel Walker. Kentucky had some moments, but the day belonged to Chubb and his offensive line. A late score by Kentucky makes final score less painful.
We'll just try to forget about this one. UK 10, UGA 38
Game 10 – at Vanderbilt
Playing Vanderbilt was just what the doctor ordered for a team aching physically and mentally from the atrocity in Athens. The perfect foe to get back in the groove; and boy did they. (Note: Before the game Vanderbilt Head Coach Mason was observed walking strangely and it was later revealed he had taken to wearing asbestos underwear.)
As expected the Commodores were hapless in their SEC games then lost to Houston, took an overtime to get by Middle Tennessee State and outright lost to Austin Peay. Things weren't going well for their football program and each game was approached as a mercy killing.
For the Wildcats, everything worked. Even T.V. Williams scored on a great pass from Barker and returned a punt for a TD, hopping backwards on one leg.
The mantle of Punter U. is passed on to the Commodores. UK 58, Vanderbilt 12
Game 11 – Charlotte at home
Did you read the Vandy synopsis? Rinse and repeat against lesser athletes playing in a crazed Wildcat Den. Stat padding game and a great game for players to rest up for the next week. UK 75, Charlotte 2
Game 12 – Louisville at home
And so Kentucky ends the season with a game against a beloved school that is attended by the genteel, staffed by the humble and fielded by the honorable. (Okay, you can clean your screen now.) It had been four years since UK was able to come out on top in the annual feud and the fans were salivating at the opportunity. The opportunity to avenge previous losses, shut the bills of Card fans, improve their bowl possibilities, put down their
warden coach and, yes, deny them a bowl game. It had been a rough year for Petrino and his charges. They had to play more than 3 good teams in a year and the schedule had worn them out. Beyond Auburn, Florida State and Clemson they couldn't handle the powerhouses of Houston, Virginia and NC State.
With much bravado, Louisville enters the game confident in their aura gained from recent history against the Cats. It turns out the aura was the smell of pizza, gun oil and a hint of Harley-Davidson cologne. But Louisville was desperate, they just had to go to a bowl game. Graduation (or at least 4 years of playing) had cost the Cardinals starting safeties, corners and two others at the line on defense along with two starting wide receivers, the tight end and two lineman from last year's squad. At the end of the season the injuries, fatigue and lack of depth was showing. It was going to be a tough day for them, particularly with the sudden winter storm that had hit the area the night before.
The game started fast with Louisville taking the opening kick-off to the bank. That sucked. When Kentucky took over the fun began. On the first snap Commonwealth witnessed the most bizarre trick play in the annals of football. I won't try to describe it but five Kentucky players touched the ball and it involved the use of a snowman.
Oh, and we scored. From there on Louisville stalled on critical drives, when they weren't turning the ball over, and UK got in rhythm. The Cardinals defense would rise up from time to time and their offense managed to spit and sputter to an occasional score but it there was no doubt Kentucky controlled the field for the day.
Kentucky facing third and long? No problem. Need a critical stop? No problem. Need a spark from special teams? No problem. Need Jacob Hyde to power in for a TD? No problem. In short, a perfect game.
Stoops was enshrined in the Ring of Honor before midnight. UK 46, UL 21
And then I woke up. Smiling. Now let's get back to reality and see what these Cats can do. I'm ready for some FOOTBALL!!