Last week, Georgia was the No. 1 team in the nation with a spot in the College Football Playoff nearly locked up. They have two of the top running backs in SEC history, along with four and five-star talent layered throughout their roster.
To be exact, the Dawgs have 11 five stars and 44 four-star players. Kentucky? One five-star and 14 four-stars.
Top to bottom, the Bulldogs are more talented than Kentucky in just about every position group, and that’s no disrespect to the Cats. UK has built a roster with a solid mix of veteran leadership and young playmakers, and teams no longer chalk up this team as an automatic win. Mark Stoops has led this program to massive heights in his first several seasons as head coach, and teams are starting to respect that.
Just four years ago, the Wildcats finished 2-10 on the year and 0-8 in conference play. Stoops had an FCS-caliber team and had to start from (literally) scratch to build this program up. Kentucky was the laughing stock of college football and quite possibly the fifth best team in the state.
Following the loss, John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote an article titled “Kentucky football finishes another SEC season unable to compete with the big boys,” where he discussed the team’s ability to knock off teams at or below UK’s level. Anything beyond that, the Cats just aren’t good enough yet to hang with the nation’s best.
To an extent, I agree Kentucky is in no position to consistently defeat elite teams such as Alabama, Ohio State, Auburn, Clemson, etc., and who knows how long (if ever) it’ll take to get there. Nobody expects this team to be in that “elite” conversation, and frankly, Mark Richt was fired for winning 9-10 games a year at Georgia, whereas we’d name our football stadium after any coach that’d be able to do that.
But to say this team can’t compete with the big dogs, specifically after last night’s defeat, is just looking at the final score without taking into account what actually happened on the football field.
Last night, Kentucky landed the first haymaker against Georgia on national television.
The Wildcats picked off Jacob Fromm on the game’s opening drive, and were in position to take a 7-0 lead after inching their way to the red zone. Stephen Johnson threw three consecutive incompletions, and the Cats had to settle for a field goal. Execution.
On Georgia’s second drive, Kentucky managed to push the Dawgs deep into their own territory on a big TJ Carter sack and forced the punt. The Cats had all the momentum and had a massive opportunity to go up two scores early in the game. Roughing the punter, Georgia’s drive continues, touchdown Bulldogs. Execution.
Down 7-3, UK got the ball back and continued to move the ball down the field on offense. The Bulldog defense didn’t have an answer for Benny Snell, and the passing game kept them off balance. Eddie Gran was drawing up beautiful plays and made the defense extremely uncomfortable. After making it into the red zone for a second consecutive time, Johnson had a few misfires and we saw crucial drops from Wildcat receivers. Kentucky has to settle for another field goal. Execution.
Instead of potentially going up 21-0 after the first three drives of the game, UK was behind 7-6, and momentum shifted Georgia’s way. This was never a game Kentucky could win with field goals, and we saw exactly why in the first half.
Take away three or four crucial plays in the first half for Kentucky, the Wildcats likely have a lead going into halftime with the ball to start the third. At the very least, the game is tied, and UK could have flipped momentum back to open the second half.
Instead, the Cats had to fight from behind, the offense couldn’t execute, the defense got tired, and the wheels fell off. After cutting the lead to just eight points with 11:28 remaining in the third quarter, Kentucky either punted or threw an interception on every offensive drive to end the game. Georgia scored a touchdown on three of their next four possessions to end the game.
I am not a fan of moral victories, and I wouldn’t consider this one. Kentucky fought like hell in two quarters and couldn’t finish the job.
Head coach Mark Stoops agrees.
“I was disappointed in the way we played,” Stoops said. “We knew we’d have to play a very good football team and we’d have to play some very good football on our end. I really didn’t feel like we did that.”
That being said, the Cats were in position to flip the script of this football game entirely and had a legitimate shot to shock the college football world. With execution on just three or four plays, who knows how that game ends.
The final score was ugly, and most people seeing the result on the bottom ticker on ESPN probably assume it was just another blowout loss for Kentucky. The UK coaching staff and players, however, had an impressive gameplan going into the game and went for the jugular of an elite football team.