In 2014, Mark Stoops’ second season as Kentucky’s head football coach, the Cats started 5-1 and then lost their last six games.
In 2015, UK started 4-1 and lost six of their last seven to finish 5-7 for the second consecutive season.
In 2017, the Cats started 5-1 and lost 5 of their last seven, including a 29-point loss at Georgia and a 27-point home loss to Louisville.
Now it’s 2018 and Kentucky is 5-1 overall and 3-1 in the SEC. The second half of the regular season commences Saturday when Vanderbilt visits Kroger Field. Recent history suggests UK’s first-half success may not be sustainable. It says here this year will be different.
Five reasons why the Cats’ won’t collapse:
No. 1: Maturity. In Stoops’ six seasons at UK, this is by far his most seasoned squad. If previous editions made the youthful mistake of growing overconfident after breaking quickly from the gate, this team has the scars to realize a strong start doesn’t guarantee a strong finish.
The fact that Kentucky suffered its first loss right before the bye week, falling 20-14 in overtime at Texas A&M, should keep heads level. The offense was unhappy about struggling in College Station. The defense was unhappy that it lost at College Station. Yet, by all reports, there has been no finger-pointing, just work.
No. 2: Depth. Attrition is an unavoidable problem once the schedule grinds into late October/early November. The SEC is a tough, physical league that takes its toll on a team’s health. Yet this is the deepest of Stoops’ UK teams. It has already shown it’s built to plug-and-play.
Starting defensive tackle Josh Paschal was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma on his foot just before the start of training camp. No problem. Starting left offensive tackle Landon Young was lost to a torn ACL nine days before the season opener. No problem. This team has figured out how to keep the boat afloat.
No. 3: Defense travels. Through six games, UK is ranked fifth nationally in scoring defense and 14th in total defense. It is giving up just 13 points per game. It has held all six of its opponents to 20 points or less. And it has shown that it can be stingy both at and away from home.
That wasn’t always the case last year. In the noise and chaos that is an SEC away game, last year’s defense let go of the rope. It gave up 45 points at Mississippi State, 42 at Georgia. That seems less likely to happen this year. This year’s defense has staying power.
No. 4: The opponents. Kentucky figures to be the underdog Nov. 3 when the now-No. 2-ranked Georgia Bulldogs visit Kroger Field. That, however, may be the only game in which Kentucky isn’t favored down the stretch.
Vanderbilt has struggled. Missouri’s defense has sprung leaks. New coach Jeremy Pruitt is finding there’s no quick fix at Tennessee. Middle Tennessee lost by 28 at Vanderbilt and 42 at Georgia. Heading into Saturday, at least, Bobby Petrino has had nothing but transmission trouble with his post-Lamar Jackson offense.
No. 5: This team is just better than those previous teams. That’s the bottom line. Not only does it boast headliners in Benny Snell (offense) and Josh Allen (defense) it has better talent across the board. Dreams and schemes aside, better football teams normally have better football players. Simple, but true.
That isn’t to say there were not things to fix over the bye week. The offense gained less than 200 yards at Texas A&M. Quarterback Terry Wilson is coming off a shaky performance. There have been too many pre-snap penalties of late. And despite all that defensive brilliance, Stoops the stickler believes that side of the football can still improve in a few areas.
Overall, however, there is every reason to believe that this team can avoid the October and November disappointments and finish as strong as it started. This team looks built to last.
Vanderbilt at No. 18 Kentucky
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: SEC Network