Let’s not beat around the bush: Kentucky football hasn’t exactly had the start to the season many of us expected. A season with so much optimism appears to be headed off the rails quickly, following back-to-back losses to open the 2020 campaign. With Mississippi State coming to Lexington this weekend, and Alabama, Georgia, Florida and even an improved Tennessee squad left on the schedule, it has many fans wondering how bad things can get.
Yet while I understand the frustration of many, the more I look at this season, the more I believe it isn’t quite as bad as some people think. Yes, this team is too talented to be 0-2 right now. And no, I am not making excuses for an 0-2. But I do believe that when you look at the totality of things, the blown calls against Auburn, the self-inflicted mistakes against Ole Miss and the inability to do the little things right, this doesn’t feel like a team that is headed for the SEC cellar.
Instead, it’s a team that is plenty talented. But now needs to start playing like it.
Therefore, while there are a lot of fans who are justifiably disappointed (again, I’m not here to make excuses) there are reasons not to give up on the season either.
Here are five:
We all know what happened in the Auburn game
Not belabor a point that is almost two weeks old or beat a dead horse, but man, that Auburn game was so, so, SO frustrating. It’s not to say that Auburn wasn’t the better team or didn’t deserve to win. But any objective person who watched that game knows that it was way closer than the final score would indicate.
First off, we’ve got to begin with the botched touchdown call. Look, I understand refs are human and they have to make a hundred tough judgement calls over the course of any given game. That was not one of them, however. When the play happened it was clearly a touchdown (to the point that Tom Hart called it as much from the booth) and when it wasn’t immediately ruled a touchdown, video should have overturned it. It isn’t often that a call is blatantly wrong on the field, and still not overturned, yet that’s exactly what happened in this case.
And you know why I’m so confident in saying that the refs screwed that one up: Because even Mark Stoops decided not to comment on it, for fear of going off and getting a fine from the SEC office.
You know that call was BS. I know it was. And so does Mark Stoops.
And while I know it’s easy to say “Yeah, well Auburn won the second half anyway” context matters. And it’s important to note that every decision made by both teams following the non-touchdown call were completely altered by that missed call by the refs. Had that touchdown been called properly on the field, it means that Kentucky is up 14-8 going into the half. And if you fast-forward to the fourth quarter, it also means that after Auburn converted Terry Wilson’s fumble into a touchdown, Auburn would’ve led 22-20, not 22-13. Which means Kentucky wouldn’t have felt the need to force a fake punt deep in their own territory if they weren’t down two scores.
Again, I’m not arguing that if the call is made correctly Kentucky absolutely, positively wins that game. But man, doesn’t it change a lot?
Put another way, think about it like this: How often do you hear of a team having more total yardage than the opponent, more passing yardage, rushing yardage, fewer penalties, fewer penalty yards, converting a significantly higher percentage of third downs, controlling the clock in time of possession – and losing the game by three scores?
That basically never happens, right? Only it happened to Kentucky. And it’s just hard for me to wrap my head around how different things might have been if the touchdown call to end the first half was made correctly.
The defense wasn’t good against Ole Miss – but relatively speaking, it wasn’t awful either
To fully understand what I mean here, you have to know who Ole Miss is. They are a team that (rightly) understands that the only chance they have to win games is to outscore you. That’s not really my opinion, but a fact. Looking at the stats, they lead the SEC in total offense at 536 yards per game. They also rank dead last in total defense, giving up 600 yards per game. That is 100 yards worse than any other team in the SEC.
So yeah, in the same way some teams can only beat you if the score is 17-7, Ole Miss can only beat you if the score is in the 40’s. To their credit, they successfully executed that on Saturday, beating Kentucky 42-41.
Yet in looking at that game compared to Ole Miss’s first game, it really wasn’t as bad as you’d think.
That sounds crazy, but hear me out.
In Ole Miss’s opener, they played Florida. Virtually everyone agrees Florida is legitimately good and a a legitimate playoff contender. Yet against the Gators, Ole Miss tallied over 600 yards of total offense, including a staggering 13 yards per completion through the air. Ole Miss also averaged 3.8 yards per rushing attempt.
Again, that was against Florida, a team people believe is good enough to make the playoff.
Against Kentucky, a team which people think stinks because they are 0-2, Ole Miss put up significantly less yardage (459 yards, compared to over 600), completed 11 yards per pass attempt and 3.7 yards per rush. Now, as it pertains to Kentucky that isn’t good and must get better for them to win games. But relative to Florida, the Wildcats did a decent job of holding Ole Miss in check.
The difference of course was that Kentucky didn’t do the little things to win the game. They gave up a free touchdown with AJ Rose’s celebration, had 81 total penalty yards (compared to Ole Miss’s 33) and missed a PAT that helped Ole Miss seal the victory.
For the 1000th, time, these aren’t excuses for Kentucky. But facts.
If they clean up the little things, they win that game. But they didn’t, and they lost.
Which leads me to…
You’ve got to do the little stuff right – and Kentucky isn’t right now
This really is the most basic tenant of football. If you do the little things right, it doesn’t guarantee a victory. But it certainly helps you get closer. And looking at the raw statistics, it’s just shocking how bad Kentucky is at the little things right now.
As mentioned up top, AJ Rose’s pre-touchdown celebration, which led to a fumble, was just insanely costly. It was also reflective of who Kentucky is so far. Right now, they currently rank last in the SEC in turnover margin – they have turned the ball over four times, and created zero turnovers on defense. One, that’s inexcusable on the defense’s part. But two, inexcusable on the offense as well. Especially since one of those turnovers should have been avoided all together (Rose’s fumble, if he’d scored earlier in the drive) and Terry Wilson’s fumble against Auburn where he went untouched.
Then, there are the penalties, which as I mentioned, were bad against Ole Miss. It is also again, reflective of who Kentucky is right now, as they are the second most penalized team in the SEC heading into Week 3. They also are the only team to miss a PAT in the league so far this season (an admittedly costly one) and haven’t made a field goal yet either, one of only two SEC teams that can say that (the other ironically is Ole Miss) .
Ultimately, it’s an insanely small sample size. But when you don’t win the turnover battle, don’t win on special teams and have more penalties than the opponent it sure is hard to win games.
The good news is, there is plenty of time to turn that all around.
The offense is better than anyone expected
Look, I know there are a lot of frustrations right now with the offense – specifically the play-calling and quarterback play. And I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong for feeling what you feel. What I would also say is, for all the frustration, an argument could be made that the offense has been better than expected.
For starters, while things look different, Kentucky has largely picked up where they left off last year: They are stuffing the ball down people’s throats. Despite two games where they trailed late and were forced to throw in each, Kentucky has still largely been dominant in the ground game. They currently lead the league in rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns. Not to mention that despite having the most carries, they lead the league in yards per rush, which is no small feat. The passing game hasn’t been terrible with Terry Wilson, who has largely done what he’s been asked to do.
Now, would most fans like to see a little more balance? It seems so. But at the same time, the offense is largely doing what we all thought it would, which is control the line of scrimmage, milk clock and again, stuff the ball down people’s throats.
Now it’s up to the defense to play better (Ole Miss) and for the offense to avoid costly turnovers (Auburn) which get them off-script.
Have you seen the bottom-half of the SEC East?
Kind of a random, interesting note: Of the four teams in the SEC that are winless, all four are in the SEC East. Of those four, Kentucky is the only one that can reasonably claim that they had a chance to win both games they played in. Missouri was blown out twice, and Vanderbilt and South Carolina held their own in the opener before getting blown out last weekend.
Therefore, it isn’t an exaggeration to assume that the Wildcats should be favored in at least four of their final eight games. They’re slight favorites this weekend against Mississippi State. They should be favored in home games against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. And going on the road to Missouri isn’t exactly like playing a night game at LSU.
As for the rest of the games, what do we really know about Tennessee? That’s no disrespect to the Vols, and their eight-game win streak is an awesome story. But we’ll see just how good they are when they face Georgia this weekend. As it pertains to a matchup against Kentucky, it’s not as though they dominated them a season ago, winning 17-13 in a game where Kentucky attempted all of seven passes. As for Florida, as good as they look, Kentucky won in the Swamp the last time they played there, and three of the other four most recent meetings ended in a one-possession game. Last year’s game against Georgia was tied late in the third quarter before the Dawgs pulled away. Meaning that against the two best teams in the East, you know Kentucky won’t be scared. They won’t be scared against Alabama either, even if they are at a talent disadvantage.
The point being that entering the season, I think most rational people thought 6-4 was a fair expectation, and 7-3 was a high-water mark. While 7-3 is probably off the table, 6-4 is still in play and 5-5 shouldn’t be deemed a failure by anyone. While some would see that as a disappointment, remember, Kentucky went 3-5 in league play last year, with two less SEC games on the schedule. Regardless of how much talent is on this roster, 5-5 will be a challenge for just about everyone other than the top, top teams (Alabama, Georgia and Florida).
In the end, no one knows where Kentucky will end up – but this team isn’t as bad as the record would indicate, and the season can be salvaged.
Now, will it be salvaged?
It’s up to the 85 guys in that locker room.