John Clay

As Kentucky basketball rides the hype train, football can’t find a seat

Mark Stoops on Kentucky football scrimmage: Not good enough

Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops was not pleased with his team’s scrimmage on Saturday, August 11, 2018 at Kroger Field. Kentucky opens the season Sept. 1 at home against Central Michigan.
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Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops was not pleased with his team’s scrimmage on Saturday, August 11, 2018 at Kroger Field. Kentucky opens the season Sept. 1 at home against Central Michigan.

Hype is not an equal opportunity employer.

Take the Kentucky basketball and football teams. Each are preparing for the start of their respective seasons, yet they’re on the opposite sides of the expectations fence.

Kentucky basketball had not even tipped off the first of its four exhibition games in the Bahamas on Wednesday night when SEC Network analyst Dan Dakich had declared John Calipari’s Cats the favorite to win the national championship.

In the same week, Kentucky’s football team, coming off its first back-to-back bowl appearances in nearly a decade, were ranked as the nation’s 80th best team by CBS Sports.

Once again, UK’s basketball chances rely heavily on first-year players fresh out of high school, yet most way-too-early prognostications have the Cats as either the preseason No. 1 or not too far behind.

Mark Stoops’ football team returns 17 starters, plus a few more key holdovers, yet the voters at last month’s SEC Football Media Days picked Kentucky to finish fifth in the seven-team SEC East.

National media have spent the summer gushing over SEC basketball’s strong showing last year while predicting an even tougher league in 2018-19, yet they have the Cats once again at the top of the conference ladder.

Meanwhile, the football team was eight points from finishing 10-3 last season, yet Big Blue Nation has played a summer game of wait-and-see when it comes to season ticket sales for the home games at Kroger Field.

OK, yes, at halftime of the basketball Cats’ Wednesday night win, I did see SEC Network analyst Chris Doering, the former Florida wide receiver, go game-by-game through the Cats’ schedule and predict an 8-4 campaign.

Doering’s blue-tinted optimism has been the exception, not the rule. Canvas the various media outlets and preseason yearbooks and UK’s popular projected win total settles on six victories, give or take one, and only one.

Perhaps it’s my contrarian nature, but there’s something unsettling about the opposite ends of the UK pendulum. While I think Kentucky football’s 2018 chances are being underhyped, I have this uneasy feeling that the basketball team’s prospects are being overhyped.

Even with Thursday’s partial Bahamas blackout, the first two games of UK’s exhibition series was filled with an array of accolades from commentators Dakich and Seth Greenberg — or at least when the duo saw fit to actually talk about the game playing out in front of them.

There were plenty of things to like, starting with center Nick Richards’ aggressive play in the first game and Tyler Herro’s highlights in the second. But the wins came against a pair of teams with fluid rosters in an unusual setting. It’s a long way between the Bahamas and the Nov. 6 Champions Classic opener against Duke.

History is behind this, of course. Kentucky has been a perpetual national championship contender nearly every season since Calipari arrived on campus in 2010, and there’s no reason to think that will change. And despite yearly departures of fab freshmen, Calipari has restocked his roster with even more fab freshmen, and there’s no reason to think that will change. If a high school prospect commits to Kentucky, he is assumed to be top-notch, and usually confirms the assumption.

Kentucky football operates under the opposite assumption. Forty years have passed since the program has posted a winning conference record. Since 2010, Kentucky basketball has had 35 players selected in the NBA Draft. Over that same time period, Kentucky football has had 11 players selected in the NFL Draft.

Still, I remain curious as to why the football Cats have received a national shrug of the shoulders. Stoops has returning a back-to-back 1,000-yard rusher in Benny Snell, a projected first-round pick in outside linebacker/edge rusher Josh Allen, one of the nation’s top tight ends in C.J. Conrad and a veteran secondary, among other attributes.

I guess it comes down to that Calipari axiom of proven performance. Kentucky basketball has a record of backing up its hype. Kentucky football does not. We’ll see if that changes.

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