Chances are when he slips on his UK pajamas and crawls into bed at night, Mark Stoops doesn’t lie awake counting the dollar signs on his new contract extension. Nope, Kentucky football’s head coach is probably staring at the ceiling thinking of what might have been.
Kentucky is two plays away from being 9-1.
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No. 1 is the uncovered receiver who scored the touchdown that gave a now-nosediving Florida its 28-27 win over UK in September. (You could substitute the offensive holding call that squelched the Cats’ answer.) No. 2 is the improbable catch by Ole Miss receiver D.K. Metcalf with (a) UK cornerback Lonnie Johnson draped all over him and (b) five seconds remaining that gave the Rebels a 37-34 victory on Nov. 4.
This might be the point where the face of former UK coach Jerry Claiborne would appear with one of his favorite sayings: “That’s that ol’ iffin game, Mark. Go to sleep.”
Saturday in Nashville, the Cats snapped awake to shake off the heartbreak of the Ole Miss loss and drop-kick Vanderbilt 44-21. Though not as gaudy as 9-1, Stoops’ squad is now 7-3 overall and 4-3 in the SEC heading into Saturday’s final regular-season road game against Georgia.
“We got our confidence back,” declared junior cornerback Derrick Baity, who joined teammates Denzil Ware, Mike Edwards and Jordan Griffin in intercepting Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur passes.
Elsewhere Saturday, Georgia took a shot to the confidence chops. The No. 1 team in the College Football Playoff rankings dropped from the unbeaten ranks by being rudely rolled at Auburn 40-17. Head-turning stat: Auburn outgained Georgia 488-230.
So will the mad Dawgs bite back when Kentucky steps between the hedges on Saturday for the 3:30 p.m. CBS telecast? Or will Georgia be in full pout, stuck in Coach Kirby Smart’s dawghouse?
No matter what happens, Georgia has already clinched the SEC East title and a date with either Alabama or Auburn in Atlanta’s spectacular Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the league title game Dec. 2. If the Bulldogs run the table, beating Kentucky, Georgia Tech and Alabama/Auburn, they are right back in the CFP picture.
Though Kentucky is surely a decided underdog, two factors say the Cats could keep it close. First, they stuck with Georgia a year ago, losing 27-24 when Reginald Blankenship kicked a 25-yard field goal on the final play at then-Commonwealth Stadium. Second, an under-reported story of the Stoops Era is UK’s road success.
Yeah, yeah, we know, the Cats were blistered 45-7 at Mississippi State last month. (Ask Nick Saban about playing in Starkville.) But Saturday’s win at Vanderbilt, preceded by the September victory over the Men of Muschamp at South Carolina, makes this the first Kentucky team to record two conference road wins in the same season since Rich Brooks’ 2009 team won at Auburn and Georgia.
After losing 14 of his first 15 road games as the Kentucky coach, Stoops has now won five of his last seven. Despite the negative fan vibe and rampant second-guessing after the Ole Miss loss, UK fans showed up Saturday — you should find someone who loves you as much as the Big Blue Nation loves Nashville — in such force they drowned out ’Dores fans and earned a postgame shout-out from Stoops. Still, the win counts as a road win.
By the way, among the brightest Nashville stars was UK freshman Lynn Bowden, who first turned a bubble screen into a 56-yard gain — the 35 yards he covered, plus the 21 yards his fumble bounced forward to be jointly recovered by Charles Walker and Kayaune Ross. “They saved me,” Bowden said.
Later, Bowden bobbed and weaved his way through a long and winding road of a 93-yard kickoff return that set up a score. Asked afterward what he saw, Bowden replied, “Blocks.”
Now, as Bill Belichick would say, it’s on to Georgia. It’s a shame we won’t be witnessing two 9-1 teams playing for the division title and a trip to Atlanta. We were so close. Just two plays away from that. Just two plays. That’s that old iffin’ game.
Kentucky at No. 7 Georgia
3:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)
Kentucky-Georgia last 10 meetings