So what’s it going to take?
Georgia’s 34-17 win over Kentucky on Saturday at Kroger Field for the SEC East title didn’t really require much analysis. Georgia is the better football team. Simple as that. Georgia has better players. The better players made better plays. End of story.
No reason for Kentucky to hang its head, however. Just to be in the legitimate position to play for the division title, to be ninth in the first College Football Playoff rankings, is a major step forward for Mark Stoops’ program. And the Cats enjoyed the warmth of the water in which they were swimming until they discovered how deep.
So how does Kentucky football take that next step? How does UK get to Georgia’s level of where the Cats are not just playing for a trip to the SEC title game in Atlanta, they are playing in the SEC title game in Atlanta?
The answer is what got Kentucky this far: Recruiting and developing. Only more of the same.
We can make fun of the recruiting rankings all we want. We can scoff at the hype and scratch our heads over recruiting’s internet appeal. We can point to the busts that make the whole business appear highly overrated. But stars matter.
We’re talking five-stars, four-stars and on down the line. If John Calipari’s ability to recruit is what makes Kentucky basketball an annual contender for the national title — and it is — then more often that not the same holds true of Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and, yes, Georgia in college football.
As Marc Weiszer pointed out in the Athens Banner-Herald last week, Georgia’s last four recruiting classes have ranked in the top six nationally by the 247Sports composite rankings. Georgia’s 2017 class was ranked No. 3. Its 2018 class was ranked No. 1.
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s classes ranked 38th nationally in 2015, 34th in 2016; 30th in 2017 and 36th last year by 247Sports. And that’s a step up from where UK normally ranked before Stoops and Vince Marrow arrived on campus in 2013.
According to Weiszer, Georgia was expected to start 17 players who were rated five- or four-star prospects on Saturday. Kentucky was expected to start 16 players who were three-star prospects or lower.
Benny Snell was a three-star prospect. Saturday, the UK running back became the first player in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in three different seasons. Josh Allen was a two-star prospect. And Kentucky’s outside linebacker could be one of the top 10 players selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.
If you’re Kentucky, you have to find and develop those types of players. To consistently reach the level of a Georgia, however, you have to do that and more, however. Much more.
One Saturday play spoke volumes. Late in the first half, leading 7-3, Georgia was facing a second-and-17 at the Kentucky 20-yard line. Running back D’Andre Swift took the handoff, made a UK tackler miss in the backfield and then executed a mesmerizing run for the touchdown. It was a run of God-given skill. That’s the type of skill you can’t teach.
That’s what made Wandale Robinson’s commitment to UK on Thursday so important. No one knows with absolute certainty if the Western Hills play-maker will be a college star, but there were plenty of high-profile programs more than willing to give the four-star prospect a chance. And Kentucky won out.
“Obviously, the talent difference is there,” Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell told Weiszer before the Kentucky-Georgia game. “We’re going to see if it shows on the field.”
It did, starting with five-star recruit Mecole Hardman’s 65-yard punt return less than three minutes into the game. Physicality, a strong running game and stout defense place Kentucky in a prime position. Against a team with some of the top talent in the nation, however, it was not enough.
“We can learn from this,” Stoops said Saturday.
True, but Saturday was more confirmation than lesson. We can make fun of recruiting rankings all we want, but stars matter.