Photo slideshow: Kentucky tops South Carolina to remain undefeated
Do you want to believe that something huge is possible for Kentucky football this season?
But are you still having a hard time letting go of the nagging doubts, the fear and the apprehension?
Players and coaches have been promising since this summer that this season is different for Kentucky football. So far it has been.
After a 24-10 victory over South Carolina on Saturday night, Kentucky is 5-0 for the first time since 2007.
Cats fans can start dreaming big.
Here are five reasons that it’s OK to do just that.
1. ‘Laser-like focus’
With nine starters back on offense and 10 returning on defense, 17th-ranked Kentucky is one of the most veteran teams in the country, which the players say makes them different.
It makes everything different as far as maturity and preparation and has been the biggest change this season.
“I’ve been here for four years and finally everybody’s on the same page,” inside linebacker Jordan Jones said last week. “It’s just a great feeling to have for real.”
But how is it different? Jones had a quick answer.
“People are taking it more serious. They’re not waiting until Thursday or Friday to flip the switch. … It’s just different.”
Fellow linebacker Kash Daniel said there’s a businessman mentality that comes with the experience.
“We won this game on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday through our week of preparation,” Daniel said after topping Mississippi State a week ago. “We were laser-like focus, everybody came in knowing what we were about to face and we came out and did our thing.”
This team is always excited about playing on Saturdays, but it also seems to like the day-to-day grind of getting better, Coach Mark Stoops said.
2. A different kind of swagger
The national media have started talking about Kentucky as being the big surprise in the Southeastern Conference just this week.
To that Benny Snell says: It’s about time you noticed us.
“It’s late,” the outspoken UK running back said Tuesday of the discussion about how good the Cats can be and his Heisman Trophy talk. “This should’ve been here.
“It’s all coming right now, but we’ve still got a long season. How we play football — how I play football — the attention should’ve all been there. It’s late. It’s whatever.”
There was linebacker Kash Daniel taking massive bites out of a chicken sandwich discussing how a Mississippi State running back shouldn’t have been talking down on social media about Snell last week.
None of the confidence comes from a phony place, Stoops assured. Maybe individual players use slights on social media to get them going a little bit, but it’s not necessarily needed for success.
“The team takes pride in the way they play and all the work that they put in the offseason and so on,” said Stoops, whose team became the first to top four straight opponents by double digits since 1983. “So, it’s about our preparation and what we do. Emotion usually goes out the door pretty quickly.”
The swagger has to be helped knowing that the 3-0 start in conference play included ending a 31-game losing streak at Florida and the victories came against teams with high preseason expectations.
3. Run the ball, stop the run
The top teams in the conference at running the ball were among the top teams in the rankings last season: Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn.
That’s not an anomaly. If a team can run the ball and stop the run, it’s got an excellent chance in the SEC.
Kentucky seems to be adept at both this season, coming into this game as the top rushing offense in the league — and No. 10 nationally — averaging 269 yards a game behind a veteran offensive line and Snell.
The junior is almost impossible to single-handedly bring down, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp said this week.
“I don’t know you can mimic,” him, the Gamecocks’ coach said of Snell, who went over 3,000 career yards in the first quarter on Saturday night. “There’s not many of them out there. You need to emphasize gang-tackling, you need to emphasize swarming the football, you need to emphasize finishing on the ball-carrier.”
And the Cats have been pretty good at stopping the run as well, holding opponents to 106 yards a game coming into Saturday’s game. Kentucky was third in the league in points per game allowed at 13.3 and second in the conference in yards per game allowed at 279.5.
“They got a lot of guys that can make a difference,” Muschamp said of UK’s defense. “They’ve recruited extremely well on that side of the ball.”
4. Looking behind and ahead
This version of the Cats are in the rarest of air. It’s just the 11th time since 1900 that UK has opened a season with five straight wins. And it’s just the fifth time since 1949. All of those teams who did that advanced to bowl games.
This is the first team since 1977 to start league play at 3-0. The Cats are now 10-6 in their last 16 Southeastern Conference games, the best stretch since Oct. 15, 1977, to Nov. 17, 1979.
And there’s a pretty good chance that this Kentucky team will be the favorite in five of its final seven regular-season games with the lone exceptions being next week’s game at Texas A&M and then against Georgia on Nov. 3.
The Cats could be looking at much bigger bowls than the middle Southeastern Conference tier. There’s an array of New Year’s Day Bowls like the Outback, Citrus and Sugar Bowls. A Citrus Bowl rep was even on hand to watch UK defeat South Carolina on Saturday night.
5. A future boost
If starry-eyed Kentucky fans want to ponder a future even brighter than the one before them this season, they can ponder what Stoops and staff said this week about how this fast start — and a full stadium — have been a recruiting boost.
There was recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow discussing players in a hurry to schedule official visits and lining up to get on campus.
“Every recruit there — and we had some big recruits there, some on official visits — and they were blown away,” Marrow said of last weekend’s visitors. “Their parents were saying, ‘Wow.’
“Some people are recruiting against us saying we’re a basketball school, but when they left they were saying this is definitely a football school. Then getting that win just put us way up for a lot of people on our board.”
Key in-state target Ballard linebacker Jared Casey was at Kroger Field for an official visit on Saturday as was local target Wandale Robinson on an unofficial. A few other highly touted in-state players also were expected to be at Kroger Field along with a sellout crowd of 63,081.
Bigger wins, bigger crowds — and perhaps even bigger bowls — can only help the Cats as they go forward.