Mark Story

The three rival fan bases burning to see Kentucky football ‘slip back’

Mark Stoops uncomfortable basking in success

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday, March 4, 2019, if he had time to sit back and enjoy the success of last season. The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018 with a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday, March 4, 2019, if he had time to sit back and enjoy the success of last season. The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018 with a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.

When Oak Park, Mich., five-star lineman Justin Rogers committed to Kentucky on Monday over a who’s who of traditional football powers, it set off page after page of perplexed fan reactions on an internet message board thread affiliated with one of the rejected suitors.

Tennessee Volunteers backers did not take losing a coveted football recruit to UK with equanimity.

This has been the ultimate feel-good spring for Kentucky football. The Wildcats program is riding a wave of positive recruiting momentum after last year’s 10-3 breakthrough season and a strong showing by ex-Cats in the 2019 NFL Draft.

As UK’s football fortunes have risen, it has been fascinating to watch rival fans assuring themselves that Kentucky will inevitably “slip back” to pigskin irrelevancy.

From observation, it seems there are three fan bases that are particularly invested in the idea that UK cannot sustain the upward arc of its football program.

South Carolina

The head-to-head trends: Kentucky has defeated the Gamecocks five years in a row. Mark Stoops is 5-1 vs. South Carolina, while Gamecocks head man Will Muschamp is 0-3 vs. UK in his current job.

The last three years overall: Kentucky has 24 wins, including 13 Southeastern Conference victories, since 2016; South Carolina has 22 wins with 12 SEC victories.

The skinny on the series: After UK defeated South Carolina 24-10 last September, a Gamecocks fan called Paul Finebaum’s SEC Network program the following week to opine that “South Carolina should never lose to Kentucky in football.”

Finebaum replied that the Gamecocks had lost five games in a row to the Wildcats “so you should be used to it by now.”

Actually, since South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992, the upper hand in the series has changed each decade. The Cats went 5-3 vs. the Gamecocks in the 1990s.

South Carolina, buoyed by the hiring of Lou Holtz in 1999 and Steve Spurrier in 2005, went 10-0 vs. UK from 2000 to 2009. Seven of those 10 games were decided by seven points or less, however.

Kentucky is 6-3 against South Carolina since 2010, meaning the Wildcats have “won” the current decade regardless of what happens when the Cats face what will presumably be an inspired Williams-Brice Stadium crowd Sept. 28.

Muschamp and Stoops.JPG
South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp, left, is 0-3 vs. UK as the Gamecocks’ head man. Kentucky’s Mark Stoops is 5-1 against South Carolina. Dwayne McLemore dmclemore@thestate.com

Louisville

The head-to-head trends: Kentucky has defeated the Cardinals two of the past three meetings. Mark Stoops is 2-4 vs. U of L; 2019 will be the first season for Louisville head man Scott Satterfield.

The last three years overall: Kentucky is 24-15 with three bowl trips and one bowl victory; Louisville is 19-19 with two bowl trips and no bowl wins.

The skinny on the series: Because UK has so thoroughly dominated the modern men’s basketball rivalry with U of L (the Cats lead 27-13 since 1983), having the upper hand in the football series has acute significance for Cardinals backers.

U of L leads the modern pigskin rivalry (since 1994) 15-10, but the Governor’s Cup series has long had a “seesaw” quality.

From 1999 to 2006, Louisville was up, winning seven of eight.

Then Kentucky was on top, claiming four in a row from 2007 to 2010.

Next, U of L rose again, winning five straight (2011-15).

Now, the Wildcats seem to be entering a period of rivalry ascendance.

Making things more frustrating for U of L fans, after Bobby Petrino’s Louisville program imploded last season in a 2-10 debacle, it opened the door for Kentucky recruiters to land four top prospects from Jefferson County in the 2019 recruiting class. UK already has another prized verbal commitment from the city of Louisville for 2020.

Satterfield will get his first shot to claim the Governor’s Cup on Nov. 30 at Kroger Field. The longer UK football’s positive momentum is sustained, the more the pressure will build on the new Louisville coach to get the U of L program back on its feet promptly.

Tennessee flag flying
Over the past three seasons, Kentucky has won 13 SEC football games; Tennessee has won six. Judging by message boards, UT fans seem heavily invested in the idea that UK cannot sustain its football improvement. Wade Payne AP

Tennessee

The head-to-head trends: Kentucky has lost six of its last eight games against the Volunteers. Mark Stoops is 1-5 vs. UT; Vols Coach Jeremy Pruitt is 1-0 against UK.

The last three years overall: Kentucky has 24 wins and 13 Southeastern Conference victories; Tennessee has 18 wins and six SEC victories.

The skinny on the series: Tennessee fans treat Kentucky football with disdain. The Volunteers’ teams have earned that right for UT supporters. The Big Orange is 32-2 vs. UK since 1985.

Yet that Tennessee head-to-head dominance obscures a bigger picture.

Since 2008, Tennessee has had seven losing football seasons; Kentucky has had six.

Since 2006, Tennessee has played in seven bowl games; Kentucky has played in eight.

The theme of Volunteers football for much of the 21st century has been the quest to regain paradise lost. Since 2008, UT has burned through five head coaches (plus two interim head men) trying to recapture the lost glory of the Peyton Manning/Tee Martin era.

Should Kentucky football not “slip back”; if the Cats finally throw off Tennessee’s psychological hold and start beating the “Rocky Toppers”; that would be the most galling indignity yet for an already frustrated UT fan base.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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