No. 14 Mississippi State presents many challenges for Kentucky
On Sept. 17, 2016, Bobby Petrino was on top of the college football world.
Early that afternoon, Petrino’s University of Louisville football team shocked the nation by putting a 63-20 smackdown on No. 2 Florida State. Petrino’s new-age quarterback, Lamar Jackson, dazzled the befuddled Seminoles, running for 146 yards and four touchdowns and throwing for 216 yards and another score.
That day, the future of Louisville football gleamed like the North Star.
In their 2016 season opener, the Cats had seen a 35-17 halftime lead turn into a stunning 44-35 home loss to Southern Mississippi. The following week, a moping UK team no-showed at Florida and got whacked 45-7.
The atmosphere around Kentucky football was foul, and the mood got no brighter when Stoops’ defense allowed New Mexico State to score 35 first-half points. Even after UK pulled away for a 62-42 win over the visiting Aggies, the hottest topic in Kentucky was the size of the contract buyout UK would owe Stoops if it fired him.
On Sept. 17, 2016, you would have been hard-pressed to find two coaches whose futures looked more divergent than Bobby Petrino and Mark Stoops.
Which is why what has happened since is almost shocking.
In the 26 games Petrino and Louisville have played after Sept. 17, 2016, the Cardinals’ record is 16-10.
In the 26 games Stoops and Kentucky have played after Sept. 17, 2016, the Wildcats’ record is 16-10.
Both coaches are 0-2 in bowl games and 1-1 head-to-head in the Governor’s Cup rivalry since that pivotal Saturday two Septembers ago.
It’s an eternity until the Cats (3-0) and Cards (2-1) will end the 2018 regular season facing off in Cardinal Stadium, but through three games this year Stoops and Kentucky have shown more promise than Petrino and Louisville.
Louisville looked bad while getting mashed 51-14 in its season opener against No. 1 Alabama — but it was Alabama.
Louisville looked bad while grinding past FCS foe Indiana State in its second game — but the contest was played in a monsoon.
Louisville looked bad while rallying past struggling Western Kentucky last Saturday night — and you start to wonder if maybe U of L is just bad.
For the prior two years, the national narrative around Cardinals football was that Lamar Jackson was brilliant on a team where he did not have enough help.
Now, with Jackson as well as last season’s most talented Cardinals’ defensive player, cornerback Jaire Alexander, both gone to the NFL as first-round draft picks, the guys who were “not enough help” are the core of the U of L team.
Petrino began the season with redshirt sophomore Jawon Pass, a pocket passer, as his starting quarterback but the team has played better the past two weeks with redshirt freshman Malik Cunningham, a dual-threat, at the controls.
On Monday, Petrino said that Cunningham will get the start this Saturday at Virginia.
Conversely, Stoops and Kentucky appear to have found a quarterback in dynamic junior college transfer Terry Wilson. With UK entering 2018 with 17 starters returning but no QB who had ever played in a FBS game, finding an effective signal caller was/is the key for success.
The Wildcats thrilled their fan base by ending an embarrassing 31-game losing streak against SEC-foe Florida in the second week.
But it is the coming three-game stretch that begins Saturday night against No. 14 Mississippi State at Kroger Field, followed by a visit from South Carolina and a trip to No. 22 Texas A&M that is going to tell us how good UK really is.
A college football season is a marathon. It is possible that the relative merits of Kentucky and Louisville will look very different by the time the two teams play Nov. 24.
One of the best offensive strategists in 21st century college football history, Petrino has not gone suddenly dumb. Maybe he will “figure things out” and right the U of L ship against an ACC schedule that, other than Clemson, looks weak.
As has happened to some prior Stoops teams, UK — though deeper than in the past — might get beaten up physically by a demanding schedule.
Still, as of now, Stoops and Kentucky look to have a brighter 2018 ahead than do Petrino and Louisville.
On Sept. 17, 2016, if anyone would have said that would be the case only two seasons later, not one person would have believed it.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory