John Clay

This is a Kentucky football turnaround we admit we didn’t see coming

I’m not sure we saw this coming.

I didn’t see it. I admit it. Back in September, back when Kentucky football was off to that disastrous start, when it blew a 25-point lead and lost to Southern Miss, when it failed to show up at Florida, when it allowed 42 points to New Mexico State, predicting good things for the future Kentucky football seemed a rather dubious proposition.

And now, a little over a month later: “We did an awful lot of good things today,” Mark Stoops said.

The Kentucky coach was talking to the media in a noisy area outside the UK locker room at Faurot Field, no doubt doing everything in his power to keep from bursting into a huge grin.

Not only had his Cats just recorded an important 35-21 road win at Missouri — its second road win in the Stoops era at UK — it had thoroughly dominated the host Tigers, gaining more yards (582-386), running more plays, keeping the football for nearly 40 of the game’s 60 minutes.

“A good day’s work,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.

Actually, it was more than that. It marked the first time since 2006 the Cats have recorded four SEC wins in a season. (Remember, Stoops won a combined four league games in his first three seasons.) And by improving to 5-3, the Cats are within a single victory of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.

While many strange things have happened in the annals of Kentucky football over the years, failing to beat a currently 0-8 Austin Peay on Nov. 19 for that sixth victory would be the strangest thing of all.

So how did this happen? How did a team that looked so lost and disjointed in September suddenly morph into a team that looks so together now?

“You know what I’m going to say,” Stoops said. “I didn’t lose faith. Just stay the course.”

To me, it’s two things, one on each side of the ball.

On defense, the turnaround began with Stoops’ decision to do what he does best, to become more involved with that side of the football. Working with defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, packages have been simplified and confidence has grown. Kentucky has played with much more of a defensive purpose since mid-September.

On offense, the turnaround began with the commitment to the ground game. Yes, Benny Snell (192 yards on 38 carries) and Boom Williams (182 yards on 19 carries) were spectacular Saturday, combining for 374 rushing yards, but much of the credit has to go to John Schlarman’s offensive line, which has cleared the way for the Cats to rush for 250-or-more yards in each of the last three games.

“They are playing extremely hard and smart,” Stoops said Saturday. “They really set things up nicely for the offense, and that is what teams do.”

And yes, we know Kentucky’s four conference victims are not good teams. South Carolina is rebuilding under new coach Will Muschamp. Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt. Mississippi State has taken a predictable dip since losing star quarterback Dak Prescott. No offense to first-year coach Barry Odom, but Mizzou is a mess.

Here’s the thing: When teams fall in the SEC, you must be ready to rise. Many Kentucky teams have failed to capitalize on such circumstances. This one has risen to the occasion.

We may not have seen this coming, but heading into November, it’s going to be fun to see just how far this Kentucky team can go.

Next game

Georgia at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)

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