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Kentucky Wildcats keep stooping down to competition; is 5-1 start a mirage or start of a special season?

Saturday night’s 40-34 win against Missouri continues the trend of impressively unimpressive victories.

Jason Marcum

Please pardon the punny headline.

I’m going to start off pretty negatively, but stick around and I’ll leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling of hope. After all, the Cats are 5-1. They are on a great track to finish with the best record they’ve had in a long time, and wins are wins. Anytime you can beat an SEC opponent, you ought to at least feel decent. Yet, South Carolina has been their only inspiring win thus far.

In their three other victories prior to Saturday – at Southern Miss (24-17), Eastern Kentucky (27-16), and Eastern Michigan (24-20) – the Cats underperformed relative to expectations. They won those three games by a total margin of 22 points, despite Vegas favoring them by a whopping 56 combined.

Saturday, they let a Missouri team who had only averaged 10 points per game in their last three hang 34 points on the board. There’s been plenty of chatter of how good Missouri’s offensive weapons are, but they’ve only shown it so far against Missouri State, who now holds a 1-4 record. Missouri State and Kentucky.

What’s most important is that Kentucky’s winning these games. But the way they’re winning (or not losing, more accurately) shouldn’t be dismissed just because they lead the scoreboard at game’s end. Mississippi State, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are coming up and are all teams that the Cats can beat. They won’t win any of them playing how they’ve played lately.

It’s easy to just say “Kentucky has played bad” and not explain why. For the first four games the offensive line had failed to meet high preseason expectations. Cole Mosier’s preseason injury was considered unfortunate but endurable when it happened. The Cats could have really used his depth and veteran leadership throughout this season, and the graduation of center Jon Toth has proven to be more damaging than anticipated. They were better against Missouri, giving Stephen Johnson plenty of time to throw and creating running lanes for Benny Snell to run wild. Missouri’s defense? Not good.

Perhaps the biggest reason Kentucky hasn’t been able to put away lesser teams has been their tendency to coast with a lead. Eddie Gran has been, despite my feelings on the wildcat, a very good play caller. He has put Kentucky into position to acquire the leads that they’ve mostly held onto. But to switch from an offensive style that led to the Cats getting ahead early to one that has let teams back into games on multiple occasions, and continue to do so, is puzzling. Again, this wasn’t really a problem against Missouri but it’s been one of the major storyline of the season.

Then there’s the Florida game. We all know what happened that night, so I won’t type too many words about it. In short, massive coaching mistakes cost Kentucky a win against a team who has beaten them now 31 years in a row. Ironically enough, the Cats’ one loss is probably the best the team has looked collectively all season. Cover a couple of receivers, redo a couple of plays, and the Cats win authoritatively against the best team they’ve played thus far.

The Missouri game sticks out from the rest because it was a high-scoring shootout filled with depressing defense from both teams. Gran opened up the playbook for Stephen Johnson to make plays and he delivered to the tune of 298 yards and 2 touchdowns. Garrett Johnson and Kayaune Ross combined for 188 yards by themselves. Lynn Bowden was electric and continues to look like a future superstar. There was a lot to like from a Kentucky offense who had yet to score over 30 points prior to facing the Tigers as they unleashed an offensive showcase. Again, Missouri’s defense is brutally bad, but it’s better to score 40 points than not score 40 points.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, oh man. The game should not have been very close at all. Kentucky’s secondary needed to play as bad as they did for Missouri to keep up. Drew Lock connected on not one, not two, but three bombs for 50, 58, and 75 yard touchdowns. How can that happen? Cornerbacks getting gassed down the sideline and safeties being out of position to help over the top, that’s how.

If you don’t count leaving two Florida receivers completely uncovered, blown coverage in the secondary hasn’t been much of a problem for Kentucky before Saturday. Tonight’s display is concerning as they head into the thick of their schedule against teams with athletes greater than Mizzou. What worked against EKU and Eastern Michigan won’t work against Mississippi State or Georiga. Despite not showing it recently, I do believe the Tigers have an explosive offense and they posed a nice litmus test for the Cats’ defense. The product is still TBD but Saturday night was not encouraging.

There was a lot to be frustrating with Saturday. The Cats could have beaten a struggling Missouri team by a couple of touchdowns and instead gave them a chance to win in the last seconds of the game. Not different from the two weeks before. But, I promised I’d give you reasons to rest easy.

If before the season started I had gave you the option of the Cats being 5-1 through six games, or having it play out how it plays out, you’d have taken 5-1. They’ve been underdogs twice and have only lost once. Kentucky has both Ole Miss and Tennessee at home remaining on the schedule, who are together 1-5 in their last three games and are in varying degrees of disarray. Vanderbilt has lost three in a row by a difference of 104 points and should be a team that Kentucky is favored against they meet them next month in Nashville.

The offense shone brightly against Missouri. The defense played strong in every game prior. The two units haven’t quite clicked at the same time, and the potential of Kentucky is still very high if they can ever get them to do so. And if the offense and defensive click along with the coaching, we may really have something.

Had the Cats just stepped on the throats of their three non-Power 5 opponents, giving up 34 to Missouri in the way they did wouldn’t be as frustrating. Yet because they didn’t, Saturday is another disappointing win in a season so far defined by them.

The Cats have a lot of room to improve and the players to finish their second half strong. A bye week is coming at just the right time and we’ll know how this Kentucky team will fare the rest of the way by how they show in Starkville. A win over Mississippi State on the road and we’ll quickly forget about the games before it.

I still believe in this team and you should too. It’s okay to be frustrated with them sometimes. We do because we care.