In a season that turned out to be an absolute roller coaster ride for Kentucky Football fans, the Wildcats fell to Georgia Tech 33-18 in the Taxpayer Bowl in Jacksonville, resulting in a final record of 7-6 on the year.
While the final game of the season and first bowl appearance in six years did not go how we as fans would have wanted, there are still plenty of positive takeaways from the season. Coach Stoops has built a solid foundation in terms of the program’s facilities, talent, and depth. The Wildcats will return a great deal of starters from both sides of the ball in 2017, with perhaps a more favorable schedule than that of 2016.
The bottom line: all was not lost in this bowl game. Here’s a look at what they’re saying:
"Great environment, beautiful stadium, gorgeous day." Congrats and credits Paul Johnson. "Played better and executed in critical moments"— Justin Rowland (@RowlandRIVALS) December 31, 2016
Mark Stoops: I’m very proud of our team. There’s a lot to build on in the future. We’re going to miss our seniors.— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) December 31, 2016
Stoops says he's proud of his team: "I know we've taken very monumental steps to push this program further."— Alex Forkner (@AlexForknerTCP) December 31, 2016
Coach Stoops and Kentucky fans should be very proud of this team and of Coach Stoops after turning things around this season. Again, lots to build on in the future.
Stoops on end of first half: "I was getting conflicting reports." Says he knew the GT receiver was inbounds.— KSTV (@KSTV_Sports) December 31, 2016
Stoops says he was not "at all" upset with GT's blocking. He was upset with somebody "saying something to me."— Justin Rowland (@RowlandRIVALS) December 31, 2016
Stoops: "I have great respect for Coach Johnson, but nobody else over there is going to say a word to me."— Jon Hale (@JonHale_CJ) December 31, 2016
Whether Stoops overreacted at halftime or not, you can tell he was going to fight for his players and keep fighting for the win.
Stoops: Fourth downs were “very critical” early. They converted a fourth down. “Those were critical plays. I don’t regret going for it."— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) December 31, 2016
Stoops pleased with defense's discipline overall against triple-option but says they got "soft" inside a little.— Jon Hale (@JonHale_CJ) December 31, 2016
Bowl games are tough. We can give Stoops a pass in his first one. But blame your team getting “soft” after you’ve had four weeks to help them prepare for this moment. That falls on the coaches, in my opinion.
Incredible environment, fun to be a part of that kind of support - Coach Stoops on #BBN presence in Jacksonville— TaxSlayer Bowl (@taxslayerbowl) December 31, 2016
Kentucky fans definitely showed up to Jacksonville for the bowl game and it seemed that those behind the scenes working for the Taxslayer Bowl were very pleased to see how well traveled the Big Blue Nation is.
Stoops says this team "set the tone for the future." Noting most of the team returning next season.— KSTV (@KSTV_Sports) December 31, 2016
Agree 100 percent. Which means that finishing short of a 7-5 record next season will be a regression and probably a pretty big disappointment for the coaches and fans.
Snell didn't touch the ball until UK's 14th snap. Got five totes on third series, then two more the rest of the game. Bizarre. https://t.co/x3Q2qgoBRC— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_AJC) December 31, 2016
I didn’t really understand why Bennie Snell didn’t get more touches. He played a huge role in getting us to the bowl game. The beauty of having a back like that is that the other team can know exactly what you’re going to do and you can still be successful doing it if you execute properly.
I want to thank my Ky players from 06,07,08 for understanding it's great to get to a bowl but much, much better to win it. Great memories!— Rich Brooks (@UKcoachbrooks) December 31, 2016
Coach Brooks throwing a little shade? A lot of fans on Twitter seemed to be upset in their reactions to this tweet. I don’t really have a problem with it. Hard to argue a win is much, much better than just getting there.
Some news from the UK locker room. Boom's final game with the Cats. https://t.co/nowgwc1Fyi— Jeff Drummond (@JDrumUK) December 31, 2016
Boom Williams declares for the NFL draft pic.twitter.com/m8kImq1eWj— Curtis Burch (@curtisburch) December 31, 2016
Sad to see Boom go but completely understand his decision. He is pretty small in terms of the size of an NFL running back. He seemed rather fragile at times when at UK. Running backs at the next level are a dime a dozen and I’m not sure Boom’s draft stock would have gotten better after staying for his senior season at Kentucky. If anything, he probably would have increased the potential for injury. I wish Boom the best of luck and do appreciate all he did for the program.
Back to Saturday’s game, here was Scout.com’s Jeff Drummond on what went wrong for the Wildcats:
Kentucky seemed to be thrown out of sync by the early mistakes and never fully recovered. Miscues plagued all three phases of the team. The same offensive unit that methodically pounded defenses with the running game all season got away from its bread and butter. Williams had only 11 carries and Snell finished with seven. When Johnson dropped back to pass, there was more pressure than the UK offensive line typically allows. Meanwhile, a defensive front that had gradually improved against the run did not win the line of scrimmage against the Jackets. Through it all, Kentucky had one final chance for a comeback with just over two minutes remaining, but Tech surprised the UK defense with a 42-yard pass on third-and-four from midfield as the Cats sold out with a corner blitz to stop the expected run play.
And Kentucky Sports Radio’s Freddie Maggard on managing expectations with the 2016 Wildcats:
Was the team ready to play, was preparation adequate? Yes categorically; bowl games are weird. The young Cats played a good, full-strength, ACC football team from arguably the best conference in college football in its first bowl game in 6 years. Let me declare myself as sunshine pumper before some feel the need to respond to call me such. But, I’m not a sunshine pumper without data or statistics to support opinion. Stoops returns 19/22 starters and a wealth of young talent that is only going to be improved next season.
As I just told the team, we’re extremely disappointed with the way we finished in losing this game. But I’m very proud of them. That’s a great group to coach. There’s a lot to build on. I’m very excited about the future.
We return a whole bunch of football players. They deserve a little bit of time off right now, then we’ll get back to work when we get back when the second semester begins. But I’m proud of this team, their efforts, everything that we’ve asked them to do.”
I tend to agree with Stoops.
Finally, SEC Country’s Kyle Tucker laid out some potential lessons Coach Stoops can learn from his first bowl experience:
And here’s the thing: Stoops, who was initially ignited by what he considered dirty blocks that took out two of his defensive linemen, had plenty of valid points. But his team needed a composed coach, not the one who harassed the officials all the way into the halftime locker room. Furthermore, the scoreboard was more directly affected by the Wildcats’ mistakes than the officials’.
To wit: The next time Kentucky makes a bowl game, perhaps Stoops will advise friend and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran to stick with what got him there. Instead, Gran seemed Saturday like a man who’d overthought the game plan with a month to prepare.
He abandoned the running game, especially star freshman back Benny Snell, until the Cats were already trailing 10-0. Snell’s first carry came in the final minute of the first quarter, on Kentucky’s 15th offensive snap. He promptly ripped off 33 yards on his first six touches — then vanished again.
Snell carried it twice more the rest of the game. Fellow 1,000-yard rusher Boom Williams didn’t fare much better: 11 carries for 35 yards, an unmemorable final game for one of the most electric players in program history. Williams announced after the loss that he’s entering the NFL draft.
Neither he nor Snell, the freshman All-American, got the call on a fourth-and-1 run from Georgia Tech’s 5-yard line with 5:18 to go in the first half. Jojo Kemp was stuffed from there, and the Wildcats’ wheels soon came all the way off.
The next big date for Kentucky Football is national signing day on February 1, when the Cats expect to have one of the best recruiting classes in the program’s history for 2017.
On a personal note, I’ve enjoyed following this team and getting to write about the Cats on ASeaOfBlue.com this season. I wish everyone a happy New Year and look forward to more blogging on Kentucky Football and Basketball in 2017. Go Cats.