Last year, this was where the winning stopped. Kentucky football was 5-1. Head coach Mark Stoops was awarded a contract extension. Hopes were high. And then, just like that, the trap door opened. Kentucky finished 5-7.
This year is not last year, of course. Unlike last year, the Cats are 4-2. Unlike last year, the Cats have won a road game. Unlike last year, the Cats are older, wiser and more experienced in the roller-coaster ride that is a college football season.
Still, here we are again. Starting with Saturday's trip to Starkville, Miss. — official opening to the season's second half — we are about to find out just how much progress Kentucky football has really made.
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen has never lost to Kentucky. He was 4-0 versus UK as an assistant coach at Florida. He is 6-0 versus UK as the head coach at Mississippi State. All six games have been relatively close. MSU's average margin of victory is just 9.8 points. The fact remains, the Cats haven't been able to get over the hump against the Men of Mullen.
This year's task is no less difficult. State is an 11-point favorite. The Bulldogs are 21-4 at home in the last four years. They have won 27 straight home games against unranked teams. Their lone home loss this year was to Leonard Fournette and LSU, 21-19, when State missed a 52-yard field goal on the final play of the game.
Plus, there's Prescott. That would be MSU quarterback Dak Prescott. He's big, strong and a senior. He's also improved. Once known more for his running than passing, Prescott is completing 66 percent of his passes this season. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes. He has yet to throw an interception. At his Monday news luncheon, Stoops described Prescott as "unbelievable."
On the flip side, Kentucky has taken the Bulldogs to the wire each of the last two seasons. In Stoops' first season at Kentucky, his team fought to the end before losing a Thursday night game in Starkville, 28-22. MSU arrived at Commonwealth Stadium last year ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. The Bulldogs escaped with a 45-31 victory.
Also, this UK team has already won on the road. Never mind that win came at South Carolina, which has played so poorly its own coach handed in his visor and quit. A road win is a road win is a road win. Before Sept. 12 in Columbia, Kentucky had not won on the opponent's home turf since 2010.
And to finish well, UK must play well on the road. After Tennessee comes to CWS on Halloween night, the Cats visit Georgia on Nov. 7. It's a tough stretch of three games but it's also an important stretch of three games. Lose all three and Kentucky sits 4-5 in the midst of a four-game losing streak. Win one of the three and Stoops' troops are 5-4 with Vanderbilt (road), Charlotte (home) and Louisville (home) left on the docket.
Key to stealing a win Saturday: Turnovers. As previously mentioned, Prescott has not been picked off all season. Meanwhile, Kentucky has gone three straight games without intercepting a pass. It has forced just one turnover — an Eastern Kentucky fumble — during that span and just seven turnovers for the season. You know that is driving the old defensive coordinator in Stoops nuts.
This time last year, UK was handed a reality check at LSU. The Tigers rolled 41-3 in Baton Rouge. You could hear the air leaving the Kentucky balloon. The Cats were improved, sure, but not as improved as maybe they thought.
The Cats appear to be better this year. They have won two conference games. Their losses have come by a combined eight points. The roster is bigger, stronger and deeper than a year ago.
Still, wins are what it's about. Over the last two years, UK is 1-11 in the second half of the season. Real change starts there. The first chance comes Saturday.