Kentucky football finds itself in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2007.
It is 2-0 in the rough-and-tumble world of the SEC for the first time since 1977.
So it’s only natural to ask: How will the 4-0 Wildcats handle this new-found prosperity?
My guess: They’ll be just fine.
Two characteristics form the basis of this assumption. The first is maturity. The second is depth.
This is by far the most experienced team Mark Stoops has fielded in his six seasons as the Kentucky coach. There are key seniors all around from tight end C.J. Conrad to wide receiver Dorian Baker to offensive guard Bunchy Stallings to safety Mike Edwards to outside linebacker Josh Allen to safety Darius West. And the list goes on.
If you don’t believe experience brings maturity, examine the case of Jordan Jones, the talented senior linebacker previously known for his (a) energy and (b) penchant for, well, letting that energy get the best of him. Reference material: See his three key penalties in last season’s 44-17 loss to Louisville.
This year, Jones’ senior year, there has been plenty of (a) without the (b). The Ohio native has played two of his best games the last two weeks, not by being all over the field, but by staying in his lanes, remaining disciplined and carrying out his role in the team concept of Matt House’s defense. That’s maturity.
As a team, that maturity has been evident since the first day of camp. When Stoops opened practice to the public on UK Fan Day last month, what stuck out was the business-like manner of the work. There was no horsing around, or cutting up or wasting valuable time. Players seemed serious. And they were just starting.
According to the head coach, that’s continued. Stoops has praised his team’s approach, the way it has shown up to practice each day with the goal of getting better that day. Nothing more, nothing less. “Successful weeks come from successful days,” he said Tuesday.
If this is Stoops’ most mature team, it is also the deepest Kentucky football team we’ve seen in quite some time. In fact, it is one that is eliminating the long-heard excuse that you cannot expect a Kentucky to develop and maintain the quality depth utilized by the better teams in the conference.
It bears repeating that the Cats lost starting left offensive tackle Landon Young exactly one week before the start of the season. With a pair of newcomers, Naasir Watkins and E.J. Price, sharing the spot, Kentucky is 11th in the nation in rushing offense.
It bears repeating that the Cats lost starting defensive tackle Josh Paschal to treatment for a malignant melanoma before training camp. Since then, starting nose guard Quinton Bohanna has battled a nagging ankle problem. Despite the bad luck, UK is 11th in the nation in total defense.
It is also worth noticing that in the large shadow projected by Benny Snell, there is a running back named A.J. Rose who rushed for 104 yards in the opener and who, after four games, is averaging 7.4 yards per carry. “We are a deep football team,” Stoops has said more than once this season.
None of this guarantees Kentucky will beat South Carolina on Saturday night at Kroger Field, or win at Texas A&M the week after, or that Stoops and Company are truly on their way to a special season. It doesn’t even guarantee the Cats will handle their overnight success — that took six years, by the way — the way overnight success should be handled. As they say, 18- to 22-year-olds are hard to predict.
It does, however, equip the Cats with the tools necessary to keep right on trucking. Attitude and talent can carry a team a long way, especially if that team has put in the sweat equity that keeps turning successful days into successful weeks.