Bye Weeks for most fans are often spent reflecting on what the first half of the season has brought us, and they give us a sense of what’s to come down the stretch. Most years, if not every year since 2014, every bye week has been met with optimism. Over the last five seasons, here was the outlook for Kentucky Football heading into each and every bye week.
2014: 2-1 with blowout wins against UT Martin and Ohio countered by a heartbreaking OT loss to Florida. The rebuild was way ahead of schedule as the Cats would win their next two games. A bowl game felt inevitable–until Kentucky lost six straight to finish 5-7.
2015: 4-1 with a Dorian Baker dropped touchdown away from beating Florida and a Thursday night showdown with Auburn on deck. Once again Kentucky felt like a lock for a bowl game until the ‘Cats lost to Vandy to extend the losing streak to five. Still, the optimism at the bye week was there.
2016: After a horrid 0-2 start Kentucky found themselves at 3-3 at the bye, with their third loss coming at Alabama. Every game felt like a must-win, but with newfound heroes Benny Snell and Stephen Johnson in the mix, the turnaround felt certain with 7-5 Georgia being the toughest conference opponent left on the schedule then, of course, taking on Lamar Jackson in the ‘Ville. We all know how this season ends…
2017: It felt like a breath of fresh air for the ’17 bye week. Kentucky was 5-1 and just needed to cover one open receiver to have all of the BBN ready to buy tickets to Atlanta. However, every game was within 10 points and we all just needed a chance to breathe. The back half of the schedule saw an abysmal Tennesee team and a not-so-great Ole Miss Team making the trip up to Lexington. We know Kentucky only finished this season with two wins in the back-half, but still, the optimism was in the air.
2018: 5-1. Beat Florida; lost in overtime in college station. It was the best start to a Kentucky football season in years. The ‘Cats was on a crash course with Georgia and optimism for UK football was at an all-time high.
2019: 2-3, but 2-3 on the second-string quarterback with a hurt arm. Almost beat Florida (again), but we knew we had something special in Lynn Bowden coming. Optimism wasn’t necessarily high, but the BBN knew Kentucky still had a puncher’s chance to finish the season strong with a relatively easy schedule to wrap up the year.
You get my gist, this is the first time since Stoops’ first year that feels like a Kentucky team will finish under .500. The Cats finished under .500 in ’14 and ’15, but at the bye, it felt like all systems were a go. Right now, they’re staring at a 2-4 record on the year.
So knowing this information–knowing this season may end with 3-4 wins for a Kentucky team we thought had a legitimate shot at the SEC East–how will we evaluate this team going forward? It should first start off by capping our prior expectations. We tell ourselves every year Kentucky will beat Florida and deservedly so. However, this year, it’s not looking hot. Kyle Trask is a legitimate Heisman candidate who TORCHED one of the best defenses in the country on Saturday. Chalk that up as a likely loss.
The same is true with Alabama. Yeah, we joked and thought maybe, just maybe, Mac Jones would look terrible and we could catch the Tide in the trap. That too looks to be out the window. Mac Jones is currently a Heisman candidate and of course, Nick Saban is Nick Saban. Another likely loss.
Staying somewhat competitive and covering your spreads against Alabama and Florida would go a LONG way for the future of this program. If Kentucky can do those things: if Kentucky’s defense can at least hold some water or if Stoops can find some talent for the seasons to come, chalk that up as a major success.
That leaves Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and a bowl game to give this fan base something to look forward to.
For one, South Carolina is now a MUST-WIN for Kentucky. It’s the last regular-season game of the year after going through the wringer. Kentucky’s offense should have an answer on offense by then, and who knows if Will Muschamp will even be around come Week 10. It’s a month away, but the prospect will be there for Kentucky to finish with three or four wins this season. Finishing with four wins will be disappointing for Kentucky fans, but three wins with this team would be a massive failure, even in the weird COVID year. Should’ve beaten Missouri, should’ve beaten Ole Miss, the Cats certainly can’t lose to South Carolina.
Secondly, Kentucky’s offense just HAS to look good against Vandy. The ‘Dores are giving up 35.4 points a game to opposing offenses, there is no reason for Kentucky to struggle to move the ball on Saturday. They’ve got to find some life in the passing game whether it comes from Terry Wilson, Joey Gatewood, or even Beau Allen. It would also be nice to see some young receivers get into the action, of course. Guys like Donut and Cummings could have a coming-out party against Vanderbilt, and if they do that would be a massive win for this Kentucky program. This is all assuming Kentucky handles Vanderbilt no problem, but if they don’t, and this offense struggles to score yet again, it will be very very dark times in Lexington.
A month from now I think we look at this season as a ‘gap-year’ for a lack of better terms. Kentucky was supposed to struggle like this last year. Fortunately, Lynn Bowden had something to say about it.
But the future is bright for this program, and it’s time to start looking ahead to what can come for Kentucky to take the next step in the SEC in the next four-five years.
Think of this season as the 2015 season. They almost mirror each other in the sense that both have been incredibly disappointing, but that season Kentucky found a receiving corps, they found a ball-hawking secondary, they found the cornerstones for an offensive line that paved the way for the ‘big blue wall’.
It’s time to start looking for fresh faces, and if Kentucky can find centerpieces for years to come we should evaluate the second half of 2020 to be a success.
…or we can go 4-0 and beat Alabama and Florida on the road. That would be fun too.