The cancellation of sports during the coronavirus pandemic has given us extra time to contemplate the past and future of the Kentucky football. Instead of further examining the uncertainty that lies ahead, let’s reflect on what could have been if the ball bounced differently in the game of inches.
2000: What if Jared Lorenzen had four years with Hal Mumme?
In just over three years, Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense started a college football revolution and led to early successes at Kentucky. Tim Couch was a Heisman Trophy finalist as he led the Wildcats into the Top 25 and an Outback Bowl berth before he became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. Mumme had a 20-18 record and a freshman Jared Lorenzen starting at quarterback when rumblings of an NCAA investigation surfaced.
The Wildcats lost the final eight games of the 2000 season, unraveling before the NCAA found that recruiting coordinator Claude Bassett committed more than three dozen violations. Amid the fallout, Mumme resigned ahead of the 2001 season.
Even though some saw the offense as a gimmick at the time, Mumme had a quarterback with the skills to take the Air Raid to new levels. Lorenzen threw for 3,687 yards as a freshman. He would never get within 1,300 yards of that single-season mark. One can only dream of what Lorenzen could have accomplished in Hal Mumme’s offense for four years.
2014: What if officials called Delay of Game at Florida?
This post could be exclusively dedicated to Kentucky’s extended losing streak to Florida. From Chris Doering and Lorenzen’s late pick six to the two unguarded wide receivers and Nick Haynes’ late holding penalty, the list goes on and on. For some reason, none of those burn quite as much as what happened in overtime at The Swamp in 2014.
It was only the third game of Mark Stoops’ second season as the Wildcats head coach. Not expected to keep it close, Kentucky shocked everyone by taking it to the Gators for four quarters. Spurned as a recruit by his home state school, freshman Juice Johnson had two big touchdowns to give UK a shot to win. In the opening play of overtime period, Brent Musburger delivered a “BOOM goes the dynamite” as Boom Williams dove into the end zone. The defense held up their end, forcing a fourth down on the following possession. The play clock went to zero, but it was not blown dead with a flag. Florida got the first down, then a couple more scores to win.
UK finished 5-7 in 2014, losing six straight to end the season. Not only would Stoops have picked up a signature win to snap The Streak in year two, Kentucky would gone bowling two years sooner, giving the Cats more momentum on the recruiting trail and pushed up the time-table for a breakthrough ten-win season.
2016: What if Austin MacGinnis misses the 51-yard kick vs. Miss. State?
Would Mark Stoops still be Kentucky’s head coach if this ball didn’t sail through the uprights? It’s unlikely.
Entering his fourth season as UK’s head coach, it was a ‘make or break’ year for Stoops. With pressure mounting, he needed to prove his recruiting efforts were going to pay dividends on the field. After a blowing a double digit lead in the season-opener to Southern Miss, UK was embarrassed at Florida. Kentucky took care of business in what felt like a ‘win or go home’ game against South Carolina, but the Southern Miss loss made the path to bowl eligibility much more difficult.
Kentucky controlled Mississippi State in the must-win game until it took what appeared to be a characteristic turn for the worst. As Stephen Johnson rushed toward the end zone to give UK a double digit lead in the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs forced a fumble and returned it 80+ yards for a touchdown. As fans muttered “classic Kentucky football,” the Wildcats never gave up. A big catch by Jeff Badet in the middle of the field was followed by a wise decision to hit the turf immediately, preserving just enough time for Austin MacGinnis to save the day.
Without this made kick, Kentucky needs to beat Lamar Jackson to go to a bowl. Instead, they played with house money to pull off one of the most memorable upsets in school history, which was once again capped off with an Austin MacGinnis game-winning field goal.
2017: What if Boom and Badet return for another year?
Despite losing Drew Barker in the first game of the 2016 season, Kentucky’s offense was one of the most explosive in the SEC under first year offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. Boom Williams had nine rushes of 30+ yards and Jeff Badet caught nine passes for 30+ yards, ranking third and fifth in the conference, respectively. Their explosiveness stretched out opposing defenses, opening the door for a UK run game that had two 1,000-yard rushers.
Shortly after Kentucky’s season concluded in a loss to Georgia Tech at the TaxSlayer Bowl, Williams announced his intentions to declare for the NFL Draft and Badet entered the transfer portal, opting to finish his career as an Oklahoma grad transfer. After finishing third in the SEC with 37 plays of 30 yards or more in 2016, Kentucky’s offense had only 21 in 2017 to drop to tenth in the league. Boom and Badet were exactly what UK’s offense missed. They could have been the difference between a seven and ten-win season.
1953: What if Bear Bryant stays at UK?
Legend has it that Adolph Rupp received a Cadillac after winning a National Title while the Bear was only rewarded with a watch after UK beat the undefeated Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl. That story has proven to be more fiction than fact. Even so, there is a sense that the two could not co-exist on the same campus. But what if they could? Would Kentucky have dynasties in each sport? Would football be the pride and joy of the Bluegrass over basketball? These unanswered questions make this the greatest ‘What if?’