By contractual provision, the seventh football win Kentucky gained in 2017 earned Mark Stoops a one-year contract extension through the 2022 season.
Thanks to the new college football early signing period, Stoops and UK have already locked in 20 recruits for 2018, a class currently ranked No. 28 in the country by Rivals.com.
So it is way beyond overboard to regard Kentucky’s meeting with No. 20 Northwestern (9-3) late Friday afternoon in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium as any kind of make-or-break moment for Stoops, the fifth-year UK head coach.
Yet the conventional wisdom that the 2017 Music City Bowl — UK’s fifth all-time appearance in the Nashville game — is more important to Kentucky’s football program than a normal mid-level bowl is nevertheless accurate.
For Stoops and his troops, Friday’s 4:30 p.m. kickoff against one of the Big Ten’s better teams offers a much-needed second chance to leave a positive narrative on the 2017 UK season after the Wildcats melted down in their 44-17 loss to archrival Louisville in the regular-season finale.
That dispiriting UK performance — in which the Cats did not force a single punt and, according to the official stats, broke up exactly one Lamar Jackson pass — was marred by a series of Kentucky personal fouls after a couple of Wildcats lost both their composure and their good judgment.
The bad taste left from that performance almost certainly is a primary reason that UK entered bowl week without having sold all 8,000 Music City Bowl tickets in the school’s original allotment.
At a joint news conference Thursday at the cavernous Gaylord Opryland Hotel with Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald to promote the bowl game, Stoops said UK has practiced since the U of L loss like a team anxious to earn redemption.
“I’ve been very pleased with our team, the attitude they’ve had toward this bowl prep,” Stoops said. “They’ve worked really hard back on campus, prior to getting down here in Nashville. Since we’ve been here, they’ve really been on point.”
The good news for Stoops and the Cats is that the ill-feelings ginned up in the Louisville debacle can be erased with a bowl upset Friday.
In fact, how the 2017 Kentucky football season will be remembered will be determined in the Music City in the 13th game of the year.
Snap Northwestern’s seven-game win streak, and Kentucky (7-5) will have its first eight-win season since the back-to-back Music City Bowl champions of 2006 and ’07 put up two straight 8-5 seasons. Those two are the only eight-win seasons in UK football since 1984.
If you are looking for a reason to think UK has a viable chance at an upset, try this:
Over the first six games of the season, Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson was the Wildcats’ best offensive skill player. At that time, however, UK star running back Benny Snell, battling a rib injury, was not at his best.
Conversely, down the stretch of the season, Snell got rolling, rumbling for 777 yards in UK’s final five games alone. At that time, however, a season filled with physical punishment appeared to have caught up with the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Johnson.
The UK QB was not at his best, especially in the season’s final two games (combined 20-of-41 passing in losses to Georgia and U of L).
Stoops, however, says the time off since the end of the regular season has had a restorative effect on Johnson.
“He is healthy,” the UK coach said. “(He) had a chance to rest up for a couple of weeks, get back in the weight room, gain some weight. He’s looked very good here.”
What would Kentucky look like if Johnson and Snell both play at the top of their form in the same game?
That’s likely what it will take for the Kentucky version of Wildcats to gain the upper hand on the Northwestern version of Wildcats and, in so doing, take advantage of this second chance to leave a positive final impression.
Kentucky vs. No. 20 Northwestern
What: Music City Bowl
When: 4:30 p.m. EST
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Northwestern 9-3
Series: Northwestern leads 1-0
Last meeting: Northwestern won 7-0 on Oct. 20, 1928, in Evanston, Ill.