Welcome, Wildcats, to SEC Football

Coach Mark Stoops talks bowl games at a press conference. Photo by Victoria Graff.

Coach Mark Stoops talks bowl games at a press conference. Photo by Victoria Graff.

They used to call it the Gator Bowl.

Before the unfortunate practice of renaming all these college football bowl games to accommodate big-spending sponsorships, the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, was considered one of the bigger games of the college football post-season outside of the four majors (Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange – or whatever they’re called now).

This one is now called the TaxSlayer Bowl. It sounds like something out of the “Walking Dead” TV franchise, which may be exactly the right bowl for a Kentucky team once facing the likelihood of a 3-9 season, or even worse.

I can’t say that enough because even now I find it hard to wrap my head around it. To remember that, less than 100 days ago, on Saturday, September 10, after blowing that huge halftime lead to Southern Mississippi and being embarrassed on national TV by Florida, the Cats were the walking dead.

ABC analyst Gary Danielson, who can usually find something upbeat to say about having the flu, shook his head mournfully and actually said, “I don’t know what to say.”

The Cats trailed 24-0 at halftime. Quarterback Drew Barker played poorly, and Stephen Johnson came in and looked worse. Kentucky completed a total of four passes. A sophomore, Luke Del Rio, shredded the UK pass defense. A freshman, Lamical Perine, shredded the UK run defense.

This was supposed to be the season Mark Stoops would finally put it all together, the good start, the solid finish, bowl eligibility. The good start lasted 30 minutes – a 35-17 halftime lead over Southern Mississippi.

Then it crashed in Gainesville. And got worse the next week when Barker was helped off the field against New Mexico State, finished for who knew how long.

Stoops seemed to have two options. One, try to salvage something out of an awful situation, maybe crawl home at 2-10 or 3-9, then convince everyone that when he had said “next year will be better,” the “next year” he had in mind was 2017.

Or two, fix things on the run, somehow patching up a defense playing even worse than expected – all while entering the cruelty of the SEC season.

And maybe trade for a quarterback. (Oh, right, this is college. Sorry.) So he was stuck with a junior college transfer from California who showed, against Florida, that he couldn’t pass, but neither could he run, and seemed shell-shocked by the whole thing anyway.

Stoops had already announced he was going to take over the defense and send DJ Elliot up to the booth. That revamped defense gave up 35 points to New Mexico State in the first half. Good luck against Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia.

Let alone an explosive, Heisman-leading Louisville!

But wait. Johnson was commanding the field against New Mexico State. And someone named Benjamin Snell Jr. ran into the game and never stopped – 136 yards; four touchdowns.

The Cats dominated the second half, did not allow another point, scored 62 themselves and maybe – if you pretended that it was Alabama on that field rather than New Mexico State – turned something around.

Two games later, it was Alabama on the field, and a loss as expected, but not a crushing loss. In fact, Kentucky played the Tide closer than most others did.

Last week, during the flurry of post-season awards, Alabama’s DT Jonathan Allen – the national defensive player of the year – said Kentucky’s offensive line gave him “the most physical game that I’ve played in this year … just the determination and the want-to.

“They meant business when they came. … It was a wake-up call, upfront, that said, ‘Hey, you got to bring it. These guys are playing. It’s SEC ball now.’”

Hard to think of a better honor for this 2016 Wildcat team, far better than the too-late praise heaped on it by the fans or the writers or the networks’ talking heads. This was high praise directly from the trenches, from the best player on the best defense in college football.

And the best part of that, I think, was when he said, “It’s SEC ball now.” For in the end, bowl games and beating Louisville are great, but this was the respect Kentucky has always strived for: The Wildcats were playing like an SEC team in the toughest, most demanding football conference in the country.

So bring on Georgia Tech. Kentucky represents the SEC. And we’ve already seen that these Cats can compete with the ACC. Haven’t we? VT