Its November and Kentucky football fans are furious. Nothing especially new there thats a story that has played out countless times in the past several decades. But hang on.
Kentucky is 2nd in the SEC East. The Cats are 7-3 and have every possibility of having a 9-3 season, and Kentucky football fans are furious. Now that is different.
All but the most ardent Wildcats backer recognized a bit of an element of fools gold in the Wildcats 6-0 start. The loss to Georgia was humbling but expected. But then an ugly game at Starkville and a puzzling defensively-challenged loss to Tennessee and Kentucky was 6-3. Saturday brought a convincing win in Nashville, but apparently it wasnt convincing enough. The Wildcats, favored by 21 points, slumped after a 31-3 halftime edge and won 34-17.
Asked about the not-convincing-enough win on Saturday, Mark Stoops let a little frustration show.
Did you like (the score) the year before I got here? he asked.
No, Coach, nobody did. Beating Vanderbilt by only 17 points is a welcome change from the 40-0 home loss to the Commodores that put the finishing touches on the Joker Phillips era in 2012.
Frustration by Kentucky football fans, in an unconventional spot a winning SEC season in a productive season could actually be a good thing. It could show how far the program has come since 2012.
That said, there is the elephant in the room. Disgruntled fans are not without a point. Mississippi State is a very competent team. But the Kentucky secondary treated Will Rogers like a Vegas hotel treats a high roller. Meanwhile, UK QB Will Levis was throwing passes everywhere but to his receivers. Levis was sharp against Tennessee indeed, UK scored 42 points and held the ball for 46 minutes but found a way to lose. And the second-half effort against Vandy was balky.
But the big picture is clear. Their 5-3 record in the SEC may not sound particularly brilliant, particularly since Kentucky might have defeated the 5 worst teams in the SEC. But heres the thing: Its the second winning SEC season the Wildcats have posted since 1977. And the other was Stoops 5-3 SEC season in 2018. Kentucky has clinched its 6th consecutive bowl appearance. And unlike the only other run in recent memory that approached it the 2006-2010 run under Rich Brooks and Phillips the Cats havent spent the postseasons in the Liberty Bowl or the BBVA Compass Bowl. Kentucky has won the Citrus, Belk and Gator Bowl in the past 3 seasons. This season is perhaps most likely to end in the Outback Bowl, a game Kentucky hasnt seen since Tim Couch was under center in 1998.
But heres the rub. Kentucky fans, once thrilled by a 7-5 season, are starting to expect more. A pair of winning SEC seasons in 4 years leads fans to look beyond merely having a winning season. Working into the lower echelon of the Top 25 is nice, but Kentucky fans are starting to think about things like beating Georgia or winning the SEC. Not necessarily expecting to do either, but looking for signs that it might not be as unreachable as it once was.
In some sense, Stoops is a prisoner of his own success. For decades, Kentucky fans wanted 6 wins, any 6 wins, to land a bowl in literally anywhere. Poulan Weed-Eater Bowl? Big Blue Nation is there! Now, Kentucky fans see 6 or 7 wins as a floor, rather than a ceiling. And between those expectations and a tried and tested emphasis on recruiting, player development, and raiding the transfer portal, Kentucky is on the cusp of building a legitimately strong tradition.
So, angry fans? Bring them on. Complaints of not winning SEC games by enough touchdowns? Music to the long-suffering ears of BBN. Keep winning, keep raising expectations. The next act might be even crazier.
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