Let me give you a resume and I want you to consider whether this resume is something you would be OK with for the University of Kentucky football program:
62-60 conference record
9 bowl bids in 14 seasons (4 wins)
8 or more wins in 6 of 14 seasons
10 wins in 3 seasons
Finished in the Top 25 in 5 of 14 seasons
Losing records in 5 of 14 seasons
Last Place in Division 2 times in 14 seasons
Now, I intentionally put both good and bad stats on that resume because I want to give the full picture of this program. I think this program is one that we, as UK football fans, should be thrilled to mimic in the SEC. And that team is the Northwestern Wildcats under Pat Fitzgerald.
If you are saying right now that is a vastly underwhelming choice for a program we should emulate I would tell you that you likely have a vastly overrated opinion of Kentucky’s place in the hierarchy of college football in the SEC. We are, in fact, the Northwestern of the SEC. And I am hear to tell you that is actually a very good thing. Because I think that 10 win season in 2018 might actually turn out to have negative impacts. That 10 win season made us think we could be real players in the best conference in college football. That the Penn State’s and Florida’s of the world actually needed to take us seriously. But let’s not forget that all it took for us to get those 10 wins was the greatest running back in school history, likely the greatest defensive end in school history and potentially one of the 5 best athletes to ever play at Kentucky. Let’s be honest, that combination of players will NEVER come together at Kentucky again. And we still lost 3 games that season.
Now back to Northwestern. If your perception of Northwestern is that they are a bottom feeder in the Big Ten, you are not paying attention. Yes, Northwestern isn’t winning any conference titles. But they are consistently one of the toughest outs in the Big Ten. They are clearly superior to the Illinois, Indiana (normally), Rutgers, Maryland level of the conference. At the same time, they are not Ohio State. And that is what Kentucky should be. We need to NEVER dip into the Vanderbilt level of this conference. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking we will be Georgia consistently either. Our sweet spot is to always field competitive teams, give an occasional scare to the elite of the conference, and don’t let a down year turn into 2 years. Bounce back years are key.
Northwestern went 3-9 last year. This year they are 5-1. In 2013 and 2014, they went 5-7. In 2015, they went 10-3. Fitzgerald doesn’t always have teams that can compete with Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Michigan. We shouldn’t expect Stoops to have teams that compete with Georgia, Alabama, and Florida every year. But whether this year finishes 3-7 or 4-6, NEXT YEAR is key. It can’t be another 3 or 4 win season.
I think there are comparable schools in the Big Ten to the SEC. Here is what Fitzgerald/Stoops has done against many of them:
Ohio State: Fitzgerald 0-7
Georgia: Stoops 0-8
Wisconsin: Fitzgerald 5-6
Florida: Stoops 1-7
Iowa: Fitzgerald 9-6
South Carolina: Stoops 5-2
Indiana: Fitzgerald 6-2
Vanderbilt: Stoops 6-2
Here’s my point. I think this season has been a bust. I don’t think it should be spun any other way. But we partly have ourselves to blame because we still have this fleeting thought that UK can be a top contender in the league. The reality is that they can be a top contender every now and then when all the chips fall our way. But our happiness as a football fanbase should be in the Northwestern tier. Do not have multiple down years in a row. Touch the Top 25 every so often. Scare and/or beat the elite of your conference every few years. Bowls consistently. And take advantage of the once a decade great opportunity. Northwestern turned theirs into a Big Ten title game appearance in 2018. Maybe UK can align the planets enough to do that in the SEC East sometime. But we should appreciate that moment and also keep our perspective on what should make us happy as a fanbase.