Mark Story: Suddenly, second half of UK football schedule not looking so manageable

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 21, 2013 

Alabama Crimson Tide running back T.J. Yeldon (4), is brought down by Kentucky Wildcats linebacker Avery Williamson (40) as he burst through the line as Kentucky played #1 Alabama on Saturday October 12, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff

MARK CORNELISON — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

The conventional wisdom about Mark Stoops' first year as Kentucky football head man was the Cats had to survive a brutal, early-season stretch against Louisville, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama without being physically decimated or emotionally demoralized.

If they did, the thought went, the Wildcats would have a chance to make some noise on the back half of their schedule — which begins Thursday night when UK (1-5, 0-3 SEC) travels to face Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2).

Then came last weekend, when down was up and up was down in SEC football.

Missouri (2-6 in SEC games last season) took control of the SEC East race by throttling Florida. Auburn (0-8 in SEC contests in 2012) shocked Texas A&M. Tennessee (1-7 in SEC matchups last year) upset South Carolina.

For good measure, two teams often among the Southeastern Conference "have nots" in recent decades, Vanderbilt and Mississippi, whipped traditional powers Georgia and LSU, respectively.

"It was crazy," Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson said. "I wasn't expecting any of (those) teams to win."

Over the short term, last weekend's SEC upheaval is the epitome of a mixed blessing for Kentucky.

In my pre-season projections, I picked UK to beat Missouri (5-7 in 2012) and Tennessee (5-7) in Commonwealth Stadium. I gave the Cats at least some shot for road upsets in Starkville and in Nashville against a Vanderbilt program that endured an off-season filled with turmoil.

After last weekend, UK's chances of a "second-half comeback" to the 2013 season appear far more problematic. "All those teams that got those upsets are on our schedule, and we've still got to play them," Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.

On the other hand, Kentucky can certainly look at last weekend's SEC outcomes and draw a "why not us?" source of inspiration.

"You look at it and say, 'Anything can happen in this league,'" Stoops said Monday.

Said UK defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree: "It gives us a lot of hope."

In one sense, any school showing that the SEC football status quo can be overturned is a positive for Kentucky.

Stoops and the energetic recruiters on his coaching staff can tell high school prospects if they can win league football games at fill in the blank — Vandy, Missouri, Ole Miss — there's no reason it can't be done at Kentucky.

On the other hand, for UK football to ever consistently improve, the Wildcats have to start beating with regularity the other SEC schools of similar pigskin profile to Kentucky. The better those programs get, the more challenging it is for UK to get the upper hand.

As UK's permanent cross-division rival, Mississippi State is an especially important opponent for Kentucky to master if Wildcats football is to rise.

Since Dan Mullen left Urban Meyer's staff at Florida to become head man at MSU, the Bulldogs have gone 4-0 against UK. Making that even worse from the Cats' perspective, three of those four games were played in Lexington because of SEC scheduling quirks.

To pull a road surprise Thursday, Kentucky will have to contain Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore from Haughton, La., is eighth in the SEC in rushing (76.2 yards a game) and 11th in passing (148.3 yards a contest). Historically, dual-threat quarterbacks have been kryptonite to Kentucky defenses.

After State, UK steps out of conference against Alabama State of the FCS, then finishes up with Missouri, at Vandy, at Georgia and Tennessee.

Mizzou (7-0, 3-0) is turning in one of the more stunning good seasons in SEC history. Tennessee (4-3, 1-2 SEC) is playing with energy and belief under Butch Jones. The game before knocking off the Men of Spurrier, UT should have beaten Georgia.

By upsetting Mark Richt's Bulldogs, Vandy (4-3, 1-3) took a giant step toward becoming bowl eligible for a third-straight season. To achieve that, a victory over UK is likely a must for the Commodores.

Decimated by injuries to key players, Georgia (4-3, 3-2) has dropped two in a row. Yet by the time the Cats visit Athens, standouts such as running back Todd Gurley and wideout Michael Bennett are likely to be back in uniform.

That more "manageable" second half of the Kentucky football schedule? Suddenly, it's not looking quite so agreeable.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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