What’s that approaching in your rear-view, Louisville? Relax, it is not the police, though I can see why that would be your initial guess. It is instead the Kentucky football program. Yes, you passed the Cats a couple of years back as we were experiencing some mechanical issues. However, we have now made some adjustments, and are clearly gaining. Last Saturday’s contest, in which the Cats competed stoutly against Louisville’s allegedly top ten team, revealed what I believe are two irrefutable truths. First, Louisville is presently ahead of Kentucky. Though I would dearly love to say otherwise, Louisville was the better overall team and fittingly won the game by two touchdowns. Secondly, the margin between the programs is narrowing. Based on what we have seen to this point from Mark Stoops and staff, it is only a matter of time before Kentucky is ready to make the pass.
Though I truly deplore the thought of “moral victories” against Louisville, last Saturday has to qualify to some degree. Stoops’ ability to show progress defensively from the week one debacle against Western to the week three effort against Louisville was nothing short of phenomenal. Time after time in the first half, the Cats’ defense stymied what was supposed to be an explosive Louisville attack led by a Heisman trophy candidate. Kentucky applied pressure to the quarterback, made plays on the ball in pass coverage and tackled. In short, it was a defensive effort Kentucky fans have not seen against a quality opponent in what feels like decades. And thought the defense clearly tired in the second half, they never stopped battling. Offensively, the Cats shot themselves in the foot with dropped passes and untimely turnovers, but otherwise moved the ball, and certainly did not seem outmatched.
And who made the plays that kept the Cats in the game? Aside from the efforts of a handful of veterans (Avery Williamson, Bud Dupree, etc.), the significant plays were made by newcomers brought in by the current staff in the last eight months. Freshman Jojo Kemp exploded for 80 yards on just five carries. Freshman Ryan Timmons continued his Percy Harvin impression by accumulating 85 yards on three catches and two rushes. Junior college transfer Javess Blue caught six passes for 58 yards, and was a star in the return game. Freshman Jeff Badet added three catches, and freshman Alex Montgomery caught the Cats’ lone touchdown. Defensively, freshman Jason Hatcher played approximately half of the snaps at outside linebacker after spending most of the fall at defensive end. When Hatcher was out of the game, the Cats added freshman Blake McClain as the nickel. In addition, junior college transfer Nate Willis continued to hold down a starting assignment at corner. Za’Darius continued to be Za’Scariest. These young players, who had never set foot on a major college football field just a few weeks ago, have been thrown into the fire, and are now thriving.
The success of the young Wildcats on the roster illustrates that the staff is achieving in bringing a different level of athlete to Lexington. No longer is the game plan to bring in lightly regarded recruits and hope they can be built into football players over time. Instead, Stoops has infused the program with ready-made talent. The recruiting acumen of Stoops’ staff further demonstrates why the Cats will soon overtake the Cards as the dominant team in the state. In 2013, with just weeks to work the recruiting trail before signing day, and in the footsteps of a demoralizing 2-10 season, the Kentucky staff managed to piece together a class ranked by Rivals.com as the 29th best in the nation. Charlie Strong’s crew, fresh off a program-defining Sugar Bowl victory, place 52nd in the same ranking. The disparity in the 2014 class is also striking. Kentucky’s current crop of commitments ranks 7th nationally according to Rivals. While Louisville’s 16th place ranking may not sound far behind, consider that the Cats presently have eight commitments ranked as 4 star players, while Louisville has only one.
So let’s take a moment out of this lazy bye week to daydream about next year’ match-up. The Cats will return 16 starters from Saturday’s game. All of this season’s freshman contributors will have a full year of college experience under their belt, and as significantly, a year to develop in Kentucky’s strength and conditioning program. In addition, the offense, which obviously struggled at times, will add two 4 star receivers, three 4 star running backs, a 4 star quarterback and a 4 star offensive lineman. The defense will add a 4 star defensive tackle and a 4 star safety. And if you noticed Commonwealth leaning slightly toward the visitor sideline on Saturday, that may have resulted from the presence of recruit Matt Elam, a defensive tackle and human tree trunk who will hopefully be added to that stellar recruiting class by the time signing day rolls around in February. The fact that the game will now take place on the last week of the season also favors the Cats, as the abundance of incoming talent will have an entire season to become acclimated to the college game before taking on the Cards. And although the game will take place at Papa John’s Pizza Palace, the young Cats will likely not be intimidated, as they will, at that time, be veterans of road games in Gainesville, Baton Rouge and Knoxville. Incidentally, Louisville will likely also lose Teddy Bridgewater, the primary difference in the two teams on Saturday, to the NFL draft.
The potential of a quick turnaround for the Big Blue is bolstered by the rapid success of other similarly-situated programs. Specifically, perennial doormats Vanderbilt and Ole Miss have now reached levels of respectability with blueprints similar to the one possessed by Stoops. Despite being an overbearing blowhard, James Franklin turned Vanderbilt into a competent football program by his second year at the helm. Although certainly aided by a manageable schedule, last season’s Commodore squad won nine games for the first time at the school since 1915. Similarly, Hugh Freeze’s Ole Miss Rebels, who just hammered Texas in Austin, are now in the top 25, and are considered a dark horse challenger in the tough SEC West in Freeze’s second season in Oxford. It is apparent that with the right coach, even traditionally have-not programs can be transformed quickly when the right coach is hired. By the end of next season, Kentucky may well be on a similar uptick.
Okay Louisville lurker. I know that you are itching to get to the comments section to let us know about how Kentucky’s recruiting class will surely fall apart after what will likely be a losing record for the Cats in 2013. In response, I’ll just refer you to my co-worker here at KSR, Drew Barker, who in his recent post commented on the firm commitment that all of the 2014 class have for the program. His exact words were “We’re all 100% committed to UK.” I’ll take the word of Kentucky’s future quarterback and unofficial recruiting coordinator. In fact, if anything, I believe that Kentucky’s likely poor record only bolsters the opportunity presented to the 2014 class. They have all bought into the idea of being the class that transforms Kentucky’s football fortunes. They signed on to be the heroes, and for many of them, that opportunity will begin the moment they arrive on campus.
The Louisville-Kentucky football series has been made up of streaks. Kentucky won the first seven games. Louisville has won the last three. Prior to that, Kentucky won four in a row. Based on what we have seen from Mark Stoops and company, I think a new streak begins on November 29, 2014.