Admittedly, I know my role here at KSR, and that’s to be the guy who gives an outsider’s take on all things Kentucky sports (specifically basketball). But I’m also human dammit, and like everyone else I can’t help but get swept up in a little football fever every once in a while. So as you can probably imagine, after watching the Wildcats beat South Carolina on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think one thing: UK is going to the College Football Playoff, baby!!
Ok, maybe that’s slight hyperbole (ok, a lot of hyperbole) but the more I thought about it on Sunday, the more I realized that big-time UK football success this season might not be as crazy as some might think. The playoff is obviously off the table (in defense of Kentucky, it was for about 115 of the 128 FBS teams before the season even began) but the more I thought about the ‘Cats and the more I thought about the overall state of the SEC, the more I realized that – as crazy as it sounds — an SEC East title is absolutely in the equation.
Is it likely? Of course not. But with the East division a smattered mess of teams on the rise but not quite there yet (Georgia, Vandy) and former powers on the way down (did you want to help Butch Jones set up a LinkedIn account, or should I?) the idea of Kentucky representing the East in Atlanta the first weekend in December isn’t inconceivable either.
Here’s an easy eight-step path to getting there:
1) Kentucky already beat South Carolina
You can’t go undefeated if you don’t win the first one, and you can’t win an SEC East title without winning a few “swing” games on the schedule. Kentucky did both to open league play on Saturday night.
I’ll save the hard-hitting analysis for Nick Roush and the rest of the football guys, but South Carolina is a good team and Saturday was a quality win. It’s also one victory to put in the bank towards that elusive SEC East title.
2) Missouri is God awful
At this point, the Tigers are unquestionably the SEC’s worst team, a club which is 1-2, and already lost a home game to the same South Carolina team that Kentucky just beat. By the way, did I mention they also fired their defensive coordinator just two games into the season, and that Barry Odom is on the hot seat less than a year-and-a-half after taking the job? Or that their 35-3 loss to Purdue Saturday was way worse than it looked considering that the Boilermakers were up 28-3 at halftime before calling off the dogs after intermission?
Point being, Missouri football is a bigger mess than Duke’s admissions department trying to get a bunch of academically questionable basketball players cleared in time for the start of the season.
You never want to “assume” any victories for Kentucky football. But at home, against the league’s worst team, it seems pretty comfortable put another check in the “win” box for UK.
3) Ole Miss will have quit on their season by the time they play Kentucky
All joking aside, I give credit to any Ole Miss player who has stuck things out in Oxford. They were sold a bogus bill of goods just to get them there (Hugh Freeze promising that Ole Miss wouldn’t get hammered by the NCAA) and then their coach got fired just a few weeks before the season. Keep in mind that even before that, Ole Miss gave itself a bowl ban for 2017, meaning that even if they went 12-0 the Rebels wouldn’t have been eligible to play in the postseason.
So yeah, Ole Miss didn’t have much to play for this season anyway, and that trend is only going to continue as the season wears on. The Rebels already suffered their first loss of the year Saturday at Cal (in a game they easily could have won) and after a bye next week, they face a gauntlet prior to Kentucky that plays out like this: At Alabama, at Auburn, Vanderbilt at home (more on the Commodores coming), and LSU and Arkansas at home before that Kentucky game. Looking at that schedule, 2-3 feels like a best-case scenario, with 1-4 likely. Going 0-5 isn’t completely off the table either (depending on how you feel about the early returns on Vanderbilt and Arkansas).
To Ole Miss’ credit, the players have handled themselves well so far this season and said and done all the right things. But by the time they see Kentucky on the schedule, they’ll be a beaten up team who is only playing for pride… pride which will have been pounded out of them by that point by bigger, deeper and more physical teams. By the time November 4th comes around, the only thing Ole Miss will be excited for is the end of the season.
This one could and likely should be another win for UK.
4) Butch Jones could very well be fired before Kentucky has to play Tennessee
Look, we all saw the wild Tennessee-Florida ending on Saturday, but if we’re being honest, that game should have never come down to that one play. Tennessee had roughly 328 chances to get the lead and extend it, and instead coughed it up each and every time.
In other words, it was just another quintessential Butch Jones performance for the Vols, another notch on the belt of a coach who routinely has his team underprepared, while finding new and more excruciating ways to lose every week. As they say “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” and by now Jones has made the UT fan-base certifiably bonkers. It’s hard to imagine more than a tiny portion of the fan-base actually wants him around long-term.
And they may get their wish before Tennessee faces Kentucky on October 28th. To be blunt, it wouldn’t shock me if Jones was fired prior to the Vols match-up with UK.
It sounds crazy, but keep in mind that following this week’s game against UMass, Tennessee then faces a pretty brutal three-game gauntlet where they play South Carolina and Georgia at home, before traveling to Alabama. Based on what we’ve seen it’s totally possible that the Vols lose all three of those games, in which case they would be 3-4 overall and 0-4 in the SEC. Wouldn’t it at least be possible that Tennessee had no choice but to move on from Jones at that point, especially if the Alabama game is a debacle? It feels even more likely when you remember that the AD who hired Jones is long gone, and the new AD John Currie has no allegiance to him at all. Like LSU firing Les Miles in September of last year, could the Tennessee administration want to get a jump on their coaching search if the Vols ship is clearly sinking?
It’s a lot of “if’s” but not out of the question. Nor would a Kentucky win be if that were the case.
5) They’re getting Florida off the emotional high of last week
So I’ve just laid out a pretty compelling argument for Kentucky to get four SEC wins with relative ease, but the next four games are much tougher to argue for. And that starts with a visit from the Florida Gators this week.
Look, I know the history that’s at stake when Florida faces Kentucky this Saturday. I know that the Wildcats haven’t beaten Florida since 1987, way back when Ronald Reagan was President, Mark Stoops was still a college football player himself and gas was 7 cents a gallon (OK, I may have made that last part up. History isn’t my strong suit). Point being, it’s been a long time for UK and their fan-base and there’s plenty of reason to think that a 30-year losing streak could become 31 this Saturday.
At the same time, has there ever been more reason for hope heading into a Florida game than the Wildcats have this year? For one, the Gators just aren’t good — they got boat raced in their opener against Michigan in a game where their only “offense” came off two pick-sixes, and they also should have lost to Tennessee last Saturday at home. Two, Kentucky is probably as talented top to bottom as at any point since I’ve started watching college football. This game won’t be the physical mismatch it’s been in years past.
Not to mention that this will also be a night game in front of a loud Commonwealth Stadium crowd, and the Gators are coming off the emotional high of that wild Tennessee victory. To which I ask: How can the Gators possibly come into this game focused? Especially when you consider that no player on the Florida roster has ever lost to UK. They’ve got to be at least a tiny bit overconfident, right?
Obviously, I’m not dumb enough to call for a flat out upset. But stranger things have definitely happened (and no, that’s not a reference to Jim McElwain maybe — or maybe not — humping a dead shark this off-season).
6) Vanderbilt is going to have to beat Kentucky at its own game
Now this is where it really gets interesting (and not just because we’ve moved past the point of discussing a college football coach dry-humping a dead shark). Instead, it’s because Vanderbilt-Kentucky — a game that would have once been relegated to kick-off at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN11 — could now be a swing game in the entire SEC East title chase. Don’t laugh. I’m serious.
To Vandy’s credit, they’ve quietly become one of the most underrated — if not the most underrated — teams in all of college football. Not only are they 3-0 but coming off a lights out, 14-7 win over Kansas State last Saturday at home. That’s the same Kansas State which had been averaging 55 points per game coming into that game, and Derek Mason’s club held them to a touchdown. As a matter of fact, here’s a fun fact few know about the Dores: They actually have the No. 1 ranked scoring defense in all of college football right now. They’re giving up a meager 4.3 points per game.
Therefore, that defense is why Kentucky should be concerned, but at the same time, there is reason for optimism: Specifically, the Vanderbilt offense. That’s right, as deadly as Vandy is on “D” they’re not nearly as good on the other side of the ball. The Dores currently rank 104th in total offense, tallying just 346 yards of offense per game and their 28-point per game scoring average is deceptive when you remember that 42 of those points came against Alabama A&M.
Point being while Vanderbilt is a good team, they’re also the kind of club that is going to want to win the exact way Kentucky wants to win: Not by outscoring you on offense, but in the 14-10, 14-13 and 7-6 type games where defense, field position and special teams are key. And doesn’t trying to play like that fall right into Mark Stoops’ hands? Especially when you remember that the Wildcats have one of college football’s most reliable kickers.
(On an unrelated note, you want to know another random factor that comes into play when discussing Kentucky’s SEC East title hopes: Vanderbilt has to play Alabama. As good as Vandy is, that’s probably one game we can add to the loss column before it is even played this Saturday. It’s also a game which could help in a potential tie-breaker scenario if somehow, inconceivably, the division came down to Vandy and Kentucky.)
7) Kentucky gets Mississippi State off a bye
Had you asked me a week or two ago about where I would have ranked Mississippi State on the “concern meter” for a UK fan, I would have put the Bulldogs somewhere ahead of Missouri, but behind “a team-wide outbreak of the measles.” I truthfully didn’t think the Bulldogs were all that good. Then they went out, smoked LSU 37-7 and made me re-think everything I thought I knew about college football.
Basically, this was me watching LSU-Mississippi State for three straight hours last week.
So yeah, Mississippi State is significantly better than I expected and all of a sudden, a trip to StarkVegas looks a lot tougher on paper now than it did a few weeks ago. But there are still a few reasons to feel good if you’re a UK fan: One, the Wildcats will be coming off a bye, so Kentucky will be refreshed heading into this game. And two, with so many big games in the SEC that day (Tennessee-Alabama, Arkansas-Auburn etc.) there’s a reasonable chance that it will be either a noon or 3:30 p.m. ET kick-off. If that’s the case it’s nothing but a positive for UK. While Starkville is always a tough place to play, I have to imagine an 11 a.m. local time kick-off will have a lot different vibe than one at 7:00 p.m.
Oh, and one more thing: There’s always the possibility that Mississippi State just isn’t as good as they looked last week. We’ll find out in the next two weeks, when the Bulldogs travel to Georgia and Auburn.
In the meantime, I’d be very afraid of this game if I were a Kentucky fan. Very, very afraid.
8) They face Georgia between two rivalry games
Alright, I’ll admit that when it comes to a UK-Georgia matchup in Athens in late November, I’m grasping bit at straws here. While I think most of the SEC is a basically a bunch of coaches and programs past their expiration dates (think Tennessee, Texas A&M, Arkansas etc.), Georgia is one of the few exceptions. They’re really good. Better than I thought they would be and seemingly getting better every week as freshman quarterback Jake Fromm gets more comfortable under center. And as I sit here handicapping it on September 18th, I definitely would not be wagering on the Wildcats to win between the Hedges on November 18th.
At the same time, there are a couple things working in Kentucky’s favor, the most important being the timing of the game. The Wildcats visit Georgia right as they come off a road trip to face rival Auburn, and right before… a road trip to face rival Georgia Tech. You think — even with a potential SEC East title on the line — they could possibly be looking ahead, especially considering they lost to Georgia Tech last season?
It’s all at least a possibility, as is Kentucky winning the SEC East.
It will take some luck in other places, and probably an upset or two of Georgia (and possibly Florida) that no one is expecting. It will also take Kentucky beating a team or two no one expects them to beat as well.
But as I’ve said throughout the article: Stranger things have happened.
So why can’t UK get to Atlanta?
Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”