Six years ago this Saturday, Kentucky Football hit a low point. The Cats lost to Vanderbilt 40-0 in a mostly empty Commonwealth Stadium, putting the final nail in the coffin of the Joker Phillips Era. Phillips was fired the next day and Kentucky finished the season 2-10.
This Saturday, Kentucky will play Georgia in the same stadium for the SEC East. Both teams are in the top ten of the College Football Playoff rankings and Kroger Field has been sold out for a month. The Cats are 7-1 and will likely finish with their best record since the 1977 team went 10-1. After an arduous rebuilding process, Mark Stoops is now in the conversation for Coach of the Year.
Kentucky’s dream season hit a fever pitch Monday night when the playoff rankings were revealed. Stoops’ squad boasts the No. 1 scoring defense in the country and two of the best players in the game in Josh Allen and Benny Snell. They broke a 31-year losing streak to Florida (No. 11 in the playoff rankings) and beat Mississippi State (No. 18 in the rankings) by three touchdowns. Their only loss came in overtime at Texas A&M (No. 20 in the rankings). Their resume is proof they belong here.
And still, the fact that Kentucky football is in the conversation is enough to drive some in the media mad.
After Saturday’s last-second win over Missouri, ESPN’s Elle Duncan got so annoyed by the Kentucky football talk that she tried to stop the Cats in their tracks.
“Go away, Kentucky,” she said. “I’m sorry. Go away.”
— LRM (@WWCaptnCrunchDo) October 28, 2018
Joey Galloway trashed Kentucky’s playoff chances. Doug Gottlieb said “zero real human beings” actually believe Kentucky is better than Ohio State, a team that just got whipped by Purdue. (Clay Travis said some stuff too, but he sucks, so who cares.) Simply put, Kentucky’s success this season doesn’t fit the narrative most college football pundits are used to, so naturally, they’re over it.
Here’s my message to them: Let Kentucky have this moment. Given all we’ve gone through, we deserve it.
No fanbase in college football has suffered more heartbreak. Four losses in the final minute in the 1980 season. The Peach Bowl in 1993. The Bluegrass Miracle in 2002. Thirty-one straight to Florida. Four overtimes vs. Tennessee in 2007. I could go on and on, but Kentucky football has been defined by an almost comical tendency to shoot itself in the foot, so much so that it even has its own phrase.
Yet, this team has risen above all that. Instead of collapsing in the final minutes, Mark Stoops’ teams now find a way to win, best illustrated by Saturday’s rally in the final five and a half minutes. Some may call it luck, but Stoops calls it a change in culture. When he took over in 2013, one of his biggest challenges was getting players to believe they could win. That may sound like a cliche, but is no easy feat for a program whose players — and fans — have been conditioned to failure. Stoops summed the rebuilding process up perfectly yesterday during the SEC Coaches Teleconference.
“It’s like strapping yourself in a room with cement walls and running your head into it everyday for six years.”
It’s not just him. Prior to the past few seasons, I think most fans would describe watching Kentucky football in the same way. No wonder we flocked to basketball’s sweet embrace so swiftly. The biggest indicator of the paradigm shift in the Big Blue Nation right now? The Duke game is less than a week away and all anyone can focus on right now is football. It’s weird, but it’s wonderful.
That’s why when most fanbases were complaining about their playoff rankings Monday night, we were reveling in ours. Screenshots of No. 9 Kentucky atop No. 10 Ohio State spread across social media like wildfire, tangible proof of another “pinch me” moment. On Saturday, the Cats will play Georgia for the SEC East, a day most fans thought would never come. If you listen to everybody else, the odds aren’t in Kentucky’s favor, but they haven’t been all season. Georgia’s run defense is vulnerable and we’ve got Benny Snell. They’ve got explosive playmakers, but we’ve got one of the best defenses in the country. It’s a big game, but this team has proved it’s finally capable of handling that.
Even if Kentucky loses to Georgia, I wouldn’t trade this week for the world. Fans have been downright giddy, finally trading cynicism for optimism. The program is capitalizing on the moment, showcasing its biggest stars in Times Square and in the Players’ Tribune. Football shirts are being proudly worn in November. The atmosphere in Lexington will be absolutely nuts on Saturday. Tickets to the Georgia game are going for even more than tickets to the Duke game on secondary markets, a sentence that is stunning in itself.
…But if Kentucky beats Georgia this weekend, the dream gets even bigger. Barring an LSU upset, the Cats will face Alabama in the SEC Championship, the ultimate battle of David vs. Goliath.
Now, that is something college football should definitely root for.