Kentucky’s Struggle with History

Wide receiver Dorian Baker tries to catch a pass but it was broken up by Kei Beckham during UK’s Spring Game. Photo by Victoria Graff.

Being interviewed on TV recently, Kentucky football coach and recruiter Vince Marrow raised something so clear and sensible it got my attention.

Talking about the preseason rankings of Kentucky as fifth or sixth in the SEC East, Marrow asked, rhetorically: You mean all those other teams got better from last season to this season, but we didn’t?

It seemed almost knee-jerk on the part of the voters (whoever they were) to place the Wildcats behind the usual suspects – Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and even, in some cases, Vanderbilt.

Never mind that the Cats beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt last year. Never mind that they played Georgia and Tennessee into the fourth quarter in excruciating losses (especially Georgia). Never mind that Josh Dobbs is finally, finally gone from Knoxville.

They got crushed by Florida, in an embarrassment seen on national television. But it was in early September, the second game of the season, in Gainesville. Stephen Johnson had to step in cold for the injured Drew Barker. Bennie Snell was standing somewhere in the sideline crowd with his helmet off. Jordan Jones was playing his first meaningful minutes. The offensive line was still trying to sort out its assignments.

And it wasn’t a great SEC East season. Other than Florida (6-2 in the conference), nobody else had a better-than-.500 season. Georgia and Tennessee were 4-4, same as UK. South Carolina and Vanderbilt were 3-5, Missouri 2-6. So from this ooze of mediocrity, why isn’t Kentucky regarded as a better contender in the division?

As always, between Labor Day and Big Blue Madness, Kentucky swims against the tide of history. The Cats have that 30-game losing streak against Florida. Before they beat Tennessee in 2011, they’d lost 26 straight to the Volunteers. They’ve since lost five straight. They’ve beaten South Carolina three straight times, but before that they won only one of the previous 14.

More than that, Kentucky hasn’t been able to sustain a consistent winning record on the gridiron since Bear Bryant. And, as nice as it is to have Bryant as part of your athletic history, that’s closing in on 70 years ago. Babe Parilli’s recent passing revived memories of how glorious those Bryant years were, and how long ago they were.

There have been brief moments, of course. Fran Curci. Jerry Claiborne. Hal Mumme, they each had a season or two. Just a decade ago, Rich Brooks led the program to four straight winning seasons and bowl appearances between 2006-2009. But high moments for Kentucky football are ordinary moments in the SEC. Brooks’ record in those four years was a middling 30-22.

So why should SEC observers believe the last seven games of Kentucky’s 2016 regular season represent a renaissance?

Here in the Commonwealth, we see promise and improvement. There’s talk of how much more depth the Wildcats have than at any time in the Mark Stoops Era. How much more athleticism. How much more size.

But I get it. To the outside observer, a Snell here and a Jones there, a Denzil Ware here and a Mike Edwards there, don’t instill visions of a BCS candidate.

There are still too many Dorian Bakers, Chris Westrys, Matt Elams, Drew Barkers – physically imposing specimens with all the potential in the world, but too much of it unrealized. Multi-star recruits are great publicity for the program, but they don’t translate into anything until they produce multi-star performances on the college level.

The four I mentioned above, and dozens more who will strap on the pads and helmets soon, still have time to live up to their clippings and create an SEC contender out of all the mixed parts. And nobody’s saying they can’t.

It’s just that until they do, it’s forgivable for outside observers to have their doubts.

As to Coach Marrow’s very logical complaint – “who’s to say all those other teams will improve, but Kentucky won’t?” – the answer is history. Look at the record.

Stoops said it himself. The fourth year is critical in a five-year building program. People are beginning to lose patience. His fourth year, last year, started out like a hot mess. And then, magically, it turned around. Everything Big Blue Nation was hoping for – winning record, bowl invitation, win over Louisville – it all happened.

And so, now, comes the fifth year in the program. If it builds on the last one, as many here believe, it will truly be a football renaissance in Lexington. And others will become believers too.

But first it has to happen. VT