There is no replacement for winning.
Kentucky football is 5-0. Stop, take a deep breath, and let that resonate for a moment. Close your eyes and relive the sound of the Big Blue Nation discovering the joys of football again to the point in which buzzed fans are chanting “C-A-T-S! CATS! CATS! CATS!” departing a sold-out and joyous stadium on a victorious Saturday night.
“Is this the best Kentucky football team you’ve ever seen?” a young reporter asked me, the old guy, following UK’s 24-10 win over South Carolina.
“Well, I was in school in 1977, so I’m not ready to go that far yet,” I replied, referring to the Wildcats who embarrassed LSU 33-13 in Baton Rouge and blanked Georgia 33-0 before Prince Charles in Athens on the way to 10-1. “But this might be the second-best.”
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Yes, it is true Rich Brooks’ 2007 team, the one that upset eventual national champ LSU in overtime, started the season 5-0. A look back at their appointment calendar, however, shows the first five conquered foes as Eastern Kentucky, Kent State, Louisville (ranked ninth), Arkansas (on the road) and Florida Atlantic, then in its infancy under Howard Schnellenberger.
This Kentucky team has beaten a pair of non-Power Five teams in Central Michigan and Murray State, but also three SEC squads in Florida (at The Swamp), Mississippi State and South Carolina. Superior even to 5-0 overall, these Cats are 3-0 in SEC play for the first time since that glory year of ’77, four decades ago.
These Cats have done it — much like Brooks and Co. did it — the old-fashioned way. No Air Raid sirens on offense. No “Black Watch” slogans on defense. The recipe is the tried-and-true recipe of lots of good players collected through one good recruiting class after another. It’s just a recipe that Kentucky football has had a difficult time executing.
For all of Benny Snell’s deserved accolades, this is a defense-first team. Saturday confirmed it. While the offense sputtered in the second half, failing to score a point, Mark Stoops’ defense held the Gamecocks at bay, allowing just one touchdown. It survived a laborious 20-play drive with a crucial end zone interception, one of four forced turnovers on the night.
By the way, that ’77 team did it with defense, too, allowing just 113 points all season. Through its first five games, this 2018 team has allowed just 63.
“We’re going to watch the film and be extremely disappointed in our self-inflicted issues,” said South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp on Saturday. “Again, I’m not taking any credit from Kentucky, they played well and they are well-coached. ... How many drops did we have tonight? Six? Seven? I don’t know.”
Didn’t Mississippi State make similar comments the week before after its 28-7 loss to UK? Penalties. Drops. And more penalties. Those are the things Kentucky used to say.
Meanwhile, in the UK locker room, there was no dancing. Stoops let it slip that there was no crazy postgame celebration because (a) “we felt like we didn’t play up to our standards,” said Derrick Baity, one of three UK defensive backs to make an interception, and (b) this is what is expected now. Winning breeds winning breeds winning.
It also puts fannies in the stands. Much of September was filled with hand-wringing — mine included — over down crowds and lagging ticket sales tied to explanations of HD televisions, a glut of televised games, parking problems, traffic problems, concession prices and the inconveniences of actually attending the event. All those obstacles became surmountable when the home team started posting victories. Win, and we will come.
It’s too early to say Kentucky and Georgia are on a collision course of an SEC East showdown on Nov. 3 at Kroger Field. Having dispatched of Florida and South Carolina, however, the Cats appear to be the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs’ toughest challenge in the division.
Right here, right now, however, Kentucky football is 5-0. Let that sink in. And enjoy.
No. 13 Kentucky at Texas A&M
7 p.m. (ESPN)