John Clay

Now that Kentucky finally has hit six, time to go for seven

Boom Williams kept the faith that Cats would get bowl eligible

Kentucky running back Boom Williams says he never doubted the Cats would get the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.
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Kentucky running back Boom Williams says he never doubted the Cats would get the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.

Six is good.

Seven would be better.

Kentucky finally got the job done Saturday afternoon. After two years of coming so close, after going 0-9 in games in which the Cats needed just one more win for bowl eligibility, Mark Stoops’ troops finally kicked down that door, spotting winless Austin Peay a pair of touchdowns before roaring back for a 49-13 victory.

It’s a “significant” accomplishment, to borrow a Stoops’ phrase, one four years in the making. Remember, the UK head coach took over a program that had not been to a bowl game since 2010, that was 2-10 the year before he arrived, that under his efforts won a combined four SEC games over the first three seasons.

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about his team's 49-13 win over Austin Peay which made the program bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

Is the destination Nashville and the Music City Bowl? Is it Memphis and the Liberty Bowl? Is it Charlotte and the Belk Bowl? Or Shreveport and the Independence Bowl? Or somewhere else? The site doesn’t matter. Kentucky’s appearance is what matters.

Joy. Lots of joy.

Kentucky senior running back Jojo Kemp on the scene in the locker room after win over Austin Peay

“Joy,” said senior running back Jojo Kemp when asked to describe Kentucky’s post-game locker room. “Lots of joy.”

You had to feel the joy for veterans like Kemp, center Jon Toth, receiver Ryan Timmons, safety Marcus McWilson, cornerback J.D. Harmon, nickel back Blake McClain, etc.; players who either suffered through the final season under Joker Phillips or pledged their blind faith to Stoops, the ex-Florida State defensive coordinator who had never been a head coach before.

“Those guys have to be real happy,” said freshman running back Benny Snell, who not only broke the rookie rushing record but gets to play in a bowl game in his first college season. “They have to be really happy.”

If six wins matters, however, here’s something that would matter more: Getting that seventh.

“We have another opportunity,” Kemp said.

Kentucky senior running back Jojo Kemp talks about UK getting its sixth win for bowl eligibility.

Indeed, Kentucky is now 6-5 overall (4-4 in the conference) heading into next Saturday’s finale against archrival Louisville, a team that spit the bit at Houston on Thursday night with important College Football Playoff implications on the line, but nonetheless is a team with nine victories and (still) the Heisman Trophy quarterback in Lamar Jackson.

An upset win at Louisville, which would snap a five-game losing streak to the Cards, would also add an instant layer of credibility to the credentials of a team that despite its accomplishments has beaten just one team with a winning record — South Carolina, who is 6-5 heading into its season finale at Clemson.

2009The last time Kentucky won seven games in a season

And you have to wonder how the Cardinals will react after that 36-10 loss at Houston. A CFP berth is almost certainly no longer on the table for U of L. Will Bobby Petrino’s team be able to bounce back from such a deflating defeat, even if the next opponent is the Cardinal’s rival down the road?

Let’s say Louisville recovers nicely and continues its recent success over the Cats, sending Kentucky into the postseason with an even 6-6 mark. At that point, there’s a big difference between a 7-6 finish and a 6-7 finish, one that Phillips’ 2010 team settled for after losing to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham.

A seven-win 2016 season would not only include Kentucky’s first bowl victory since 2008 but would award the Cats their first winning season since 2009. Those would be “significant” achievements, as well.

Bottom line: Now that Kentucky has finally broken that six-win plateau, time to aim for (at least) one better.

Next game

Kentucky at Louisville

Saturday (Time and TV to be announced)

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