John Clay

It will take more than one year to convince Kentucky football’s skeptics

At the annual wall-to-wall football festival known as SEC Media Days this week down in Sweet Home Alabama, the votes will be tabulated, a drum roll will commence, and the so-called experts’ predicted order of finish will be announced.

My fearless prediction: Kentucky will be placed at or near the bottom of the SEC East.

Never mind last season’s 10-3 breakthrough. Never mind the fact Mark Stoops’ program has yet to slip a single step through the head coach’s six Bluegrass seasons. Never mind that inside UK’s division, Tennessee is still digging itself out of a hole, Missouri is on probation, Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt and the Cats have beaten South Carolina five straight times. Doesn’t matter.

What matters is that perception matters and it takes more than one stellar season for those who write and talk about the SEC for a living to change their overall perception of Kentucky football.

Not that SEC seers attending the Bonnaroo of football are free thinkers, mind you. Most of the college football preseason yearbooks at your local newsstands have the Cats tumbling back down the league mountain. Even Phil Steele, the self-professed premier prognosticator of the yearbook set, has the Cats missing a bowl for the first time since 2015. The sharpies in Las Vegas have placed the over/under on Kentucky victories at 6.5. Been there, groaned that.

“I was talking to Terry (Wilson), Lynn (Bowden), all those guys about it (Monday),” former UK running back Benny Snell said during his youth camp at Lexington Catholic High School on Tuesday. “It’s all happening again and that’s OK. It’s supposed to be like that. Don’t try to overthink it, don’t think too less of it. Think that this is how it is supposed to happen, and now it’s time for you all to do it all again. You’ve all seen the ropes, now do it again.”

That Snell is preparing for his first season with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and not his fourth UK season is one reason for the national pessimism. The missing Cats are hard not to notice. Outside linebacker Josh Allen was the seventh selection in the entire NFL Draft. Cornerback Lonnie Johnson was taken in the second round; safety Mike Edwards in the third; Snell in the fourth; offensive guard George Asafo-Adjei in the seventh.

Then the are the MVU’s — most valuable undrafted. That’s a long list that includes tight end C.J. Conrad, offensive guard Bunchy Stallings, linebacker Jordan Jones, cornerback Derrick Baity, safety Darius West. And now I will stop for fear of sending Big Blue Nation into a deep state depression.

Not that they are depressed, mind you. Ticket sales are reportedly up. Yes, up. Aside from questions about where coveted basketball graduate transfer and UK target Kerry Blackshear would land (Florida it turned out), I’ve heard more Kentucky football talk this summer than in many an offseason. Positive talk. A school’s first 10-win season in more than 40 years will have that conversational effect.

But it will take more than one 5-3 SEC record (or better) for the Cats to get the benefit of the doubt. Nick Saban could lose all 22 starters and his entire coaching staff and we would still expect Alabama to be really good again. It’s Alabama. Roll Tide Roll. We think nearly the same of Georgia, Florida, Auburn, LSU — programs with a history of grid success sustained year after year after year. We’d say the same about Kentucky basketball. In fact, in this one-and-done era, we do.

Kentucky football is not to that point. Not yet. I believe Stoops believes he has some talented young players who just need reps in practice and experience in games. How quickly those talented young players develop hold the key to (a) showing his program is built to last and (b) proving the media skeptics wrong. Again.

Then again, we’re usually wrong anyway.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
Support my work with a digital subscription