Mark Story

Hey, Cats fans, here’s why you shouldn’t jump ship on UK football yet

As Kentucky tries to bounce back from a dispiriting 45-7 loss to Mississippi State Saturday by earning a rare victory over Tennessee, UK Coach Mark Stoops says “adversity kind of reveals a man to himself.”
As Kentucky tries to bounce back from a dispiriting 45-7 loss to Mississippi State Saturday by earning a rare victory over Tennessee, UK Coach Mark Stoops says “adversity kind of reveals a man to himself.” aslitz@herald-leader.com

In absorbing a 45-7 pasting at Mississippi State, it’s possible the Kentucky Wildcats were exposed as a poor football team whose good record (now 5-2, 2-2 SEC) has been inflated against subpar competition.

It’s also possible Mark Stoops’ Wildcats just had an off day in a tough road venue.

How the 2017 UK season will ultimately be viewed will be far more determined by what happens this week against Tennessee in Kroger Field than the debacle last week in Starkville.

If Kentucky can earn a rare victory over UT by prolonging the misery of a Volunteers team (3-4, 0-4 SEC) that has not scored an offensive touchdown in its past seven halves of football, all will be well in the BBN.

Conversely, should the Rocky Toppers snap out of their doldrums and continue UT’s vexing hold — 31-1 in the past 32 meetings — over the Cats, then what happened at Mississippi State last Saturday will be seen as the point in which yet another Kentucky football season went off the rails.

So while UT’s champions of life may be playing for the job of the embattled Butch Jones, UK and Stoops also have much hanging in the balance in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. contest at Kroger Field.

“I’m excited, to be honest with you, about today and this week,” Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference. “I embrace it and I’m ready for it.”

On the weekend when UK will honor Rich Brooks’ bowl-winning football teams from 2006, 2007 and 2008, it is the 21st century history of Wildcats football that shows why it is a mistake to overreact to one bad outcome.

Of the six Kentucky football teams that have played in bowl games in the 2000s, all six endured at least one beat-down defeat like the one the 2017 Cats took Saturday.

2006

The beat down: LSU obliterated UK 49-0 in the seventh game to drop the Cats to 3-4.

The bounce back: With Brooks’ job hanging in the balance, Kentucky rallied to win five of its six final games including a victory over Clemson in the Music City Bowl.

2007

The beat down: After a 6-2 start that included two wins over top 10 foes (No. 1 LSU and No. 9 Louisville) plus a road victory at defending SEC West champion Arkansas, a physically beaten-up UK was rocked 31-14 in Lexington by a Mississippi State team not nearly as good as the one that dusted the current Cats.

The bounce back: Kentucky beat Florida State in the Music City Bowl to finish with eight wins for a second straight season.

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Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, No. 15, reacted afterMississippi State linebacker Gerri Green returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown in MSU’s 45-7 win over UK. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

2008

The beat down: UK was on the bad end of a 63-5 pummeling from Florida in the season’s eighth game in The Swamp.

The bounce back: Kentucky nevertheless went on to secure its third straight winning season (7-6) by beating Conference USA champion East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.

2009

The beat down: Kentucky lost 41-7 to Florida in the season’s third game.

The bounce back: UK would go on to win at Auburn and at Georgia and earn its fourth straight bowl trip with seven victories.

2010

The beat down: Florida gave Joker Phillips his first loss as Kentucky head man with a 48-14 pasting in the season’s fourth game.

The bounce back: Kentucky subsequently earned its first-ever victory over a Steve Spurrier-coached team when it upset No. 10 South Carolina and made its fifth straight bowl trip.

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Kentucky running back Benny Snell, No. 26, left the field after UK’s 45-7 loss to Mississippi State Saturday. Snell, Kentucky’s leading rusher, had 18 yards on seven carries in the game. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

2016

The beat down: After blowing a 35-17 halftime lead to lose 44-35 to Southern Mississippi in the season opener, Stoops and UK were blasted 45-7 the next week at Florida.

The bounce back: From that 0-2 start, Kentucky rallied to go 7-4 the rest of the way with four SEC victories, a road upset of No. 11 Louisville and a berth in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

“We certainly handled adversity very well as a football team last year — much worse adversity than this,” Stoops said Monday. “And they responded the right way. Hopefully we’ll have the same character within this group.”

It would be nice if UK could get its football program to the level it was no longer absorbing blowout defeats. The better Kentucky teams of the 2000s, however, have been able to persevere through the kind of loss the 2017 Wildcats took from Mississippi State on Saturday.

That is why it’s too soon to jump ship on the football Cats.

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