For Kentucky football, the ultimate goal remains within reach. Get to Atlanta. Win the SEC East. Play in the conference championship game. Barring that, the goal is to make the game against Georgia on Nov. 19 at Kroger Field mean something. Or everything, actually.
Last Saturday’s loss at Ole Miss didn’t change anything. Mark Stoops’ Wildcats are now 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the SEC. They lost a game where they shot themselves in the foot so many times it’s a wonder they were able to get back to the team bus afterwards. Stoops said Monday: “How can I say this without getting yelled at? I thought it was a great football match.”
Keep blasting. It was a great game. Great atmosphere. Excellent setting. Kentucky dropped from No. 7 to No. 13 in the AP poll, but is still a good football team. Losing a three-point road game to an undefeated conference opponent that was a seven-point favorite is nothing to be embarrassed about.
However, the match this Saturday is difficult. South Carolina is coming to town. The Cats have won seven of their last eight meetings with the Gamecocks. South Carolina is aware. For Shane Beamer’s team, Saturday night may be about more than just the next game on the schedule.
Kentucky needs to match that intensity. In interviews Tuesday, the coaches and players insisted the page had been turned on Saturday’s loss. Tuesday’s Mantra: This is a mature team.
So far, no SEC team is without question marks, not even Georgia. Last Saturday at Missouri, the Bulldogs looked unbeatable, then suddenly became vulnerable before pulling out a 26-22 win. In my book, the reigning national champions remain superior to their competition, but the gap may not be as wide as one might imagine.
No. 8-ranked Tennessee is off to a stunning 4-0 start. The Vols boast a potent offense that ranks first in the nation in total offense and second in scoring. The other side of the ball remains shaky. UT ranks 19th in scoring defense but 95th in total defense.
However, before Kentucky travels to Knoxville on Oct. 29, the Cats welcome Mississippi State to Lexington. There is a week off between them. Mike Leach’s Bulldogs are another tough opponent. They lost 31-16 at Ole Miss, but bounced back last Saturday to top Texas A&M 42-24 in College Station. Now No. 23 in the AP, Starkville gets Arkansas on Saturday.
What about the current state of Kentucky? Stoops said Monday that they were beaten by Kata. Bumps here, a sprained finger there. Linebacker Jaquez Jones, the team’s leading tackler, is questionable for Saturday. The hope is that outside linebacker JJ Weaver, arguably the team’s best defensive player, is ready to return. Others walk wounded.
Rich Scangarello said Tuesday that it usually takes four to five games before his offense clicks. The Cats are looking at the peak of their potential, but are yet to click. The return of Chris Rodriguez obviously helps. Fleet freshman Barrion Brown lives up to the nickname “The Big Game.” The offensive line shows continuity. However, the parts still don’t quite fit.
Will Lewis is of course the most important part. He is a defender. Not just any quarterback. Even though he double-fumbled on the last two drives and took an unforgivable safety, I thought Lewis played well in Oxford. He completed 18 of 24 passes. There were at least two drops, one on the screen, and there was only green grass in front of the tube. Scangarella is probably still suffering from night sweats because of this.
On Saturday, Lewis faces South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler, an Oklahoma transfer who, like Lewis, was considered a surefire first-round pick in the NFL draft through 2021. Since then, Rattler’s stock has fallen. He lost his starting job at OU and threw seven interceptions in five games as a Gamecock. He ranks 95th in the nation in passing efficiency. Levis ranks ninth.
Saturday’s result could come down to those two. Both are capable of big nights. South Carolina has an incentive, but so do the Cats. Even after the first setback since Nov. 6, 2021, Kentucky’s top goal remains there. Still reachable.