The Kentucky Wildcats are above .500 in SEC play for what feels like the first time in my life. UK is also sitting alone in second place in the SEC East standings this week. Let that sink in for a minute; seven games into a season that many gave up after game one, Kentucky is one game behind Florida for the SEC East lead. That is truly unbelievable.
Glass-half-empty fans will point out that the three SEC wins so far are against three of the four worst teams in the league…and they would be correct. But glass-half-full fans like me can counter that UK teams would typically have lost all three of the SEC games that they have won, especially after such a disastrous start to the season. It doesn’t really matter how you look at it, here is the bottom line: if the Cats can continue finding ways to take advantage of a weakened SEC East, this could turn into one of the most unexpected successful seasons in UK football history. The wins may be coming in unconventional, less than ideal ways; but this is Kentucky football, and we should be happy to take SEC wins any way that we can get them.
With that being said, I would like to give a shout-out to the two individuals that I believe are most responsible for this turn of events, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and his right hand man Darin Hinshaw. Sure, Stoops’ takeover of the defense has been hugely important for the team. But I believe that what Gran/Hinshaw have done since Stephen Johnson took over as QB1 has changed the complexion of the entire team. The pair of offensive leaders has established an identity for this offense, which has indirectly done the same for this entire football team. For the first time in Stoops’ tenure in Lexington, the Cats know who they are as a football team — we are a power running team. But this identity is even more about attitude than it is about schematics.
This establishing of identity has been crucial to the Cats’ resurgence; it is impossible to overstate the importance of simply knowing who you are. With their new-found identity, the offense has now established a personality as an aggressive, physical unit. This change of philosophy has particularly agreed with offensive line coach John Schlarman’s group. Ask any lineman and they will tell you that if they had their pick they would run the ball every down. Thanks to the newfound offensive attitude, the offensive line is no longer reacting to the defense; instead, they are attacking the defense. Football is more fun when you are doing the hitting instead of being hit. Led by a strong interior line – which really found their stride when Bunchy Stallings was inserted as starting right guard – UK’s big guys up front have big hitting people, and hitting them hard. When Alabama’s all-world defensive end Jonathan Allen says the Kentucky offensive line was the most physical he’s played against, that is a pretty good gauge of just how nasty the Wildcat line has become.
It is no coincidence that this offensive identity emerged at the same time as Benny Snell. Snell embodies everything that UK’s offense has become — he is big, physical, and nasty. He’d rather run through contact than around it. He is a puncher, not a punching bag. To me, Benny Snell is the picture of what Kentucky Football has become this season, and his attitude has been infectious on the sidelines. Boom Williams has become much tougher running between the tackles, and since returning from injury Jo Jo Kemp has looked really good as well. Competition demands that each player step up their game or else risk losing all of their carries to Snell, and so far Williams/Kemp have chosen to step up their game. The running game has become one of the two or three best in the SEC, which is even more impressive considering that the passing game is a still a work in progress. No matter how Stephen Johnson is throwing the ball, the Cats know they are going to line up and establish their physical rushing attack. That is what they do because that is who they are now.
But the change hasn’t just been on the offensive side of the ball. Despite giving up 38 points to MSU on Saturday, the defense has made unbelievable strides over the last four games. While I give a ton of credit for the defense’s improvement to Coach Stoops taking over the play-calling, I truly believe that the defense is also feeding off of the attitude of the offense. The offense has become an aggressive, physical offense and we are starting to see signs of the defense following suit. When they see the swagger that the offense has from imposing their will on the opposing defense, it makes them want to play with that same physicality and intensity. There is just something about watching your teammates pummel people that makes you want to do the same. The offense’s identity is starting to become the entire team’s identity.
As big as a winning season would be at this point, this newfound attitude could pay even greater long-term dividends for UK football. Great football programs have an identity that carries over from year to year. Take Alabama for instance; there are characteristics and attitudes that are consistent in Tuscaloosa even when coordinators and personnel changes. Regardless of what offensive/defensive schemes are used from season to season, Alabama football is an identity built on the attitudes and characteristics that Nick Saban’s teams embody. Now I’m not trying to pretend the Cats have arrived by any means, and I’m certainly not comparing UK football to Alabama football. But if Kentucky wants to become a respectable football program they have to start where they are, and I believe that discovering the attitude and identity that they want to play with is a great place to start. In fact, I believe that if the Stoops era proves successful we will look back at the attitude that Gran/Hinshaw’s offensive philosophy introduced to this year’s squad as the pivotal moment of the turnaround.
Many of us wrote this season, and Coach Stoops, off after the 0-2 start. But with their backs against the wall, this team changed its mindset and established an identity — an identity that I believe UK can build a program around. Kentucky is not without flaws by any means; in fact, they have more than a few things to improve on in order to complete the mission of making the postseason this year. But what they do have now is a sense of who they are and who they want to be. In spite of their errors down the stretch on Saturday, Boom Williams confidently told kicker Austin McGinnis to be ready because they would get him in range to win the game. When all of BBN thought “here we go again,” Kentucky played with the confidence and winning attitude that can only be found when a team knows who they are. The Kentucky Wildcats have an identity, and if they can stay the course I believe this could be the beginning of slow but sustainable progress as a football program.
For this weekend’s matchup with Mizzou I believe the Cats will continue their winning ways against the SEC’s bottom-feeders. I’ll take UK 31 — Missouri 24 to all but clinch bowl eligibility for Mark Stoops and the Wildcats. If my beloved Cubbies can finally make a World Series, why can’t the Cats keep winning SEC games? Go Cubs Go, and Go Big Blue!