In annihilating archrival Louisville 56-10 Saturday night before a blue-tinged crowd of 49,998 at Cardinal Stadium, Kentucky put an exclamation point on the best Wildcats football season in 41 years.
Back in the summer, if a fortuneteller had assured The Long Suffering UK Football Fan that Mark Stoops’ 2018 Cats would:
▪ End UK’s embarrassing 31-game losing streak to SEC rival Florida, and do it in The Swamp;
▪ Produce a winning Southeastern Conference record (5-3) for the first time since the Jimmy Carter presidency;
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▪ Play Georgia in a late-season game that decided the championship of the SEC East;
▪ Win nine games — including two victories over ranked teams and humiliating U of L — for the first time since Fran Curci’s 1977 Cats went 10-1.
If the football gods had promised Wildcats fans all that back in the summer, you would have seen Kentuckians from Ashland to Paducah, from Covington to Monticello dancing in the streets.
Yet, as Coach Mark Stoops’ 2018 Cats (9-3, 5-3 SEC) produced exactly that season, I’ve been surprised by how little enjoyment many UK fans have seemed to take from the Wildcats’ achievements.
So if I may make a respectful suggestion to Cats backers, it is this: Now that it’s over, you can choose how you are going to feel about the 2018 Kentucky football season.
Choose to be happy about it.
“It’s not easy to do the things this team has done and is doing,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said after the beatdown of hapless Louisville (2-10, 0-8 ACC). “Breaking down barriers and doing things that haven’t been done in a long, long time, well, you know there (are) going to be bumps in the road and highs and lows.”
For a lot of Kentucky backers, the primary low of 2018 — a dispiriting 24-7 loss at a highly mediocre Tennessee in the 10th game of the season — seemed to take a lot of the joy out of the UK season for them.
As someone who has lived 54 years and experienced a whopping seven UK football wins over UT, I understand how much it hurt Kentucky backers to see the Wildcats not take advantage of a season when, on overall body of work, the Big Blue should have been superior to the Big Orange.
On Saturday night, when asked about the disappointment in Knoxville, UK senior tight end C.J. Conrad said, “I don’t remember it. I don’t remember it.”
It would behoove a lot of Kentucky fans to adopt the same approach.
Only truly special college football teams make it through an entire season without losing any games it could/should win.
It turned out, UK in 2018 wasn’t quite at that threshold.
That does not mean, however, that the current season was “the same old Kentucky.” Nor does it mean Stoops is not changing what is possible for UK football.
On Saturday night, Kentucky sophomore quarterback Terry Wilson played the best game of his brief UK career, throwing for 261 yards and three touchdowns and running for 79 yards and a score as the Cats blitzed mistake-prone U of L (12 penalties for 134 yards).
Said Wilson: “I felt confident back there. I played loose and made plays out there, just having fun.”
Said Conrad: “Terry was great tonight, just played with so much confidence.”
In the big picture, Kentucky has now beaten Louisville two out of the last three. UK has beaten Mississippi State two out of three.
The Cats have bested Vanderbilt four out of five. UK has beaten Missouri four straight. Kentucky has won five in a row over South Carolina.
Those are the teams you have to beat at Kentucky to elevate your program.
It’s human nature to want more. Had UK not turned in the clunker at Tennessee, it might be bound for its first “major bowl” since the 1952 Cotton Bowl.
Yet, as it is, the 2018 Cats gave Kentucky fans only the fourth nine-win season in school history.
A bowl victory — likely against a Big Ten foe in a New Year’s Day Bowl in Florida, either the Citrus or Outback, if the projections are to be believed — would mean a 10th win. Only the 1950 (11-1) and ‘77 (10-1) UK teams have ever done that.
“Ten (wins) just sounds better, doesn’t it?” a smiling Conrad said.
But nine wins, a winning record in the SEC, ending that embarrassing Florida losing streak, bombing Louisville, all that was robust, too.
Kentucky had a darned good football season. The Long Suffering UK Football Fans should let themselves enjoy it.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory