We are all blessed to call ourselves Kentucky fans.
Throughout the years there have been countless moments to harken back to and remind us of what makes being a Wildcat so special.
Stevie getting loose.
The 2012 National Championship.
Aaron Harrison sniping his way through the tournament like NBA 2K with the sliders turned down.
Recently, beating a 27-point Louisville favorite and embarrassing their Heisman trophy winner —marking a memorable day for the Crying Jordan meme. We all remember where we were, who we were with, and how much fun we had after. It’s more than sports.
For me, it’s family. I still remember being down on the field atop my dad’s shoulders (yeah, I’m young) after upsetting Georgia in 2006. When you watch a Kentucky game, the experience is built upon years of sentiment and (in both victory and defeat) memories. It means so much more because of it.
As the hype for Saturday’s showdown with Florida builds and the week moves slowly along, I’ve gotten a growing sense that this weekend will stack up with the rest of the best. Perhaps, even the best that Lexington has seen in a long time.
On October 13, 2007 the Kentucky Wildcats defeated the LSU Tigers in Commonwealth Stadium. Not only that, but they beat the number one team in the country and soon-to-be national champion. Oh yeah, and it went into three overtimes. I don't have to tell you, because unless you're a sophomore at Tates Creek or something, you remember. Since that day, Lexington has never been the birthplace to such an incredible moment in the nostalgia of Kentucky sports.
Don’t believe me? Think about it. NCAA tournament games are held in neutral sites all around the country. While the 2012 Championship trophy belongs to Lexington, the memory belongs to New Orleans and hundreds of TV sets throughout the commonwealth.
It isn't often that the magic happens right here at home. If we had beaten LSU in death valley, sure, that would have been even more improbable. But thousands of Cats fans wouldn't have felt the joy of rushing the field that night. I wouldn't have been able to hear the roar of the stadium from my godparents Bill and Kim’s cookout. It wouldn't have been the same.
The Champions Classic is a fun event every year but it does not compare to the feeling of being in Lexington when the Cats are hosting another blue blood in Rupp. Since that glorious day in 2007, there hasn't been a ballgame played in Lexington that’s meant as much. Luckily, big football games are still played at home and on the road. Even more luckily, the Gators will be on their way to Krogerwealth Stadium this weekend so that the streak can end where the most Kentucky fans can enjoy it.
Alright, before you tell me to slow down, hear me out. I acknowledge that we’ve all been saying “this is the year” for years. This one just feels different.
The university has already announced a sold out crowd. The game will be played under the lights with a probable appearance in the AP Top 25 up for grabs. Hell, even Drake might be there. The stage is set. If you believe in magic, good juju, or the football gods, you have to admit that the conditions could not be more ideal.
Mystical forces aside, it feels different because it actually is. There are real football reasons that can help explain a 30 year losing streak. Florida, for the last three decades, has been a much more stable program with a considerably higher flux of talent.
The Gators have had, and I counted, 169 players drafted to the NFL since the Cats last beat them. Obviously that’s insane, but it looks even more impressive when against Kentucky’s 56. I’m not sure there’s a better statistic out there to explain the losing streak.
Now, the talent gap that has existed for so long between the them has reduced considerably. In 2010, Joker’s first year as head coach, Kentucky’s recruiting class was ranked 49th by 247 Composite to Florida’s 1st. Last year the new Wildcats were ranked only 19 spots behind the Gators.
This year’s Wildcats are built with depth, and it’s shown especially on the defensive side of the ball. Notable example: linebacker Eli Brown was called to fill the shoes of leader Jordan Jones on the road against a favored conference opponent and the defense didn't miss a beat.
The team has finally found a hard-nosed identity, where toughness on both sides of the ball defines their play style. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran wants to pound the ball into the defense, which he showed last week by calling over 40 designed run plays.
Defensively, the Cats have controlled the line of scrimmage and held opponents to an average of 57 rushing yards per game so far. Kentucky has had playmakers and speed on defense before, but it’s been a long time since the backbone of the team was grit and doggedness.
Mark Stoops was always meant to coach this kind of group.
In two games, Florida has not proven to be world beaters just yet. Michigan exposed their shaky offensive line and ground game during the first week of the season, holding them to only 11 rushing yards in 27 carries. After that, they nearly choked against Tennessee by allowing touchdown in two plays (passes for 52 and 28) right before throwing a pick to set them up for the game-tying field goal. Give them credit for winning, but it took an insane hail mary to beat a Vols team who looked impressively unimpressive in the three quarters prior.
Since last beating Florida in 1986, UK has only started 3-0 or better with a conference win once. The year was 2007. There was no such 30 year streak on the line when the Cats took down LSU, but these two Kentucky teams entered their seasons similarly despite a decade of separation.
The season prior, 2006, the Cats had just reached their first bowl game in several seasons after a 7-5 record. Last year Kentucky went 7-5 and played in a bowl after a five year drought. Hmm...
Both teams had already picked up an SEC road victory against more traditional football powers. The ‘07 Cats had taken down Arkansas 42-29 in week four, and our ‘17 Cats just beat South Carolina 27-17 (in case you already forgot).
Beating LSU launched Kentucky Football’s most successful era since the 1950’s, culminating in four consecutive bowl appearances on top of the one they'd just had. If Kentucky can finally get the monkey (or gator?) off their back and break the streak, they’ll reap the benefits for years to come.
Not to ignore being 4-0 and in prime position to compete in the SEC East, but a win Saturday would mean Kentucky football being a thing. Lexington would be, probably in a literal sense, lit. Recruits would see the program as even more on the rise and something worth being a part of. The young guys on the roster will have learned what it’s like to win huge games and will provide a tested experience to a new generation of Wildcats. 30 years of losing traded for a future of promise. This Saturday is the turning point. As one era ends, a new one begins.
I still get chills when I think of Kentucky’s 4th and 2 stand to finish off the Tigers and how my dad, Bill, and everyone else in the room burst into a spontaneous scream of joy. A win over Florida will move the 60,000 in the building to feel that same rush of happiness and disbelief. Two Keys and Tin Roof would explode. Hundreds of kids will forever remember watching 30 years of losing end at their godfather’s cookout.
Of course, there is a chance that Florida wins and the streak continues. But until I know for sure, I’m going to remember how cool October 13th was as a kid 10 years ago and hope that this weekend is the chance to experience Kentucky magic in person as an adult. Maybe someday it will be a night we all talk about 10 years later.