In the coaching guidebook to motivational quotes, you will find the following: You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.
For Kentucky football, the better/worse dividing line boils down to Saturday’s regular-season finale against the visiting Louisville Cardinals.
This past Saturday’s 42-13 loss at No. 7 Georgia left Mark Stoops’ club with an overall record of 7-4, its SEC slate now complete at 4-4. The Cats have already clinched a second consecutive bowl trip with the date and destination to be determined Dec. 3.
Lose to Louisville and Kentucky finishes its regular requirements with the same 7-5 record it did a campaign ago. By the numbers, that’s status quo. No worse than last season, but no better. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse?
In fact, you can make the argument Kentucky faced a tougher schedule in 2016. Florida was much better last season. So was Tennessee. For its game with a rotating SEC West foe, Kentucky had to travel to eventual College Football Playoff runner-up Alabama. This year, the Cats welcomed Ole Miss to Kroger Field. (And lost.)
Lose to Louisville on Saturday and the debate over the strength of Kentucky’s 2017 victories intensifies.
Lose to Louisville on Saturday and the debate over the strength of Kentucky’s 2017 victories intensifies. What was UK’s best win this season? By Jeff Sagarin’s computer rankings, it was the September victory at South Carolina. Now 8-3, the Gamecocks are No. 38 on Sagarin’s list. Missouri is No. 45, but the Cats beat the Tigers 40-34 before Barry Odom’s team embarked on its current five-game win streak.
Beat Louisville, however, and the outlook on all of the above changes. Kentucky would finish the regular season 8-4, its first eight-win regular season since 1984. It would guarantee the program’s first eight-win season overall since 2007, the year Rich Brooks’ team knocked off then-No. 1 and eventual national champion LSU.
It would also mean UK earned one more win than last season. The arrow on Stoops’ chart would trend up from 2-10 to 5-7 to 5-7 to 7-5 to 8-4. Forward momentum would continue. The regular season would again end on a high note.
Beat Louisville and the Cats also own their second straight win over their in-state rivals. That’s not an insignificant accomplishment. The Cardinals had won five straight meetings before Kentucky’s 41-38 upset victory last November at Papa John’s Stadium. It would keep the Jefferson County chapter of the Big Blue Nation smiling for another calendar year.
Beat Louisville and the Cats also own their second straight win over their in-state rivals. That’s not an insignificant accomplishment.
Defeating Louisville won’t be easy, however. After last year’s home loss in the series, Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals have the motivation of revenge. And remember, following a 9-1 start, Louisville finished 2016 with three straight losses. It vowed to finish 2017 strong.
It appears ready to fulfill that promise. After a 42-32 loss at Wake Forest, the Cardinals beat a good Virginia team 35-21, then took apart visiting Syracuse 56-10 on Saturday. The U of L defense, a sore spot for most of the season, held Virginia to 277 total yards and Syracuse to 335.
Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson accounted for 381 yards Saturday. He threw for 270 and rushed for 111, the 21st time in his career he’s topped 100 rushing yards in a game. Jackson scored on a 43-yard run and threw a 72-yard touchdown pass. On the season, Jackson has thrown for 3,273 yards and rushed for 1,287.
You can make the argument the junior from Pompano Beach, Florida has had a better 2017 season — completion percentage up from 56.2 to 59.8; yards per rush up from 6.0 to 6.8 — than he did winning the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
A year ago, Kentucky found a way to beat then No. 11 Louisville and that Lamar Jackson, a meaningful win that enhanced the way much of the fan base felt about the season.
How we see Kentucky football’s 2017 season will depend on the Louisville game, as well.
Louisville at Kentucky
Noon Saturday (SEC)
Kentucky-Louisville last 10 meetings