HOOVER, Ala. — It’s not unusual to hear snickers when Kentucky football’s contingent enters the room here at SEC Media Days. But on Wednesday at The Wynfrey Hotel, the Wildcats felt something different in the air.
“There’s definitely a lot of respect,” linebacker Courtney Love said, “that we’ve earned. It’s not just given to us. We’ve had to go out and earn that.”
The Wildcats, remember, are just three years removed from a humiliating, 18-game conference losing streak. They went six consecutive seasons with losing overall records. At one point, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Missouri and Mississippi State — the most winnable games on their league schedule — looked impenetrable.
Then in 2016, despite a stumbling 0-2 start, Kentucky had itself a bona fide breakthrough. The Wildcats won 7 of 10 games to close the regular season and swept the Commodores, Gamecocks, Tigers and Bulldogs. It was their first 4-4 SEC record in a decade. They were still in the Eastern Division race in November, and that’s the kind of thing that makes the snickering stop.
“We do feel a sense of more respect coming into places like this,” said quarterback Stephen Johnson, who outdueled Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in the regular-season finale and drew a huge crowd Wednesday. “Winning tough games (earns respect) for sure. We won a tough one against Mississippi State and obviously against Louisville. Those two games in particular really caught people’s eye, letting them know that Kentucky is a contending team, that we can do some things — and we plan to do some things this year.”
That’s precisely the feedback Love got last week at an SEC Leadership Council meeting, where he beamed as fellow players from around the league offered their impressions of the Wildcats. Expectations have changed entering Year 5 under coach Mark Stoops.
“It was awesome. I met some guys from Mississippi State, Georgia — every team — and guys were like, ‘We respect you,’ ” Love said. “Because last year, they saw how hard our team fought and they really respected us.”
That is increasingly true of the media here in Hoover, too, where Kentucky has emerged as a popular dark-horse pick out of the East. Many have predicted the Wildcats to finish third in the division — a far cry from 2007-14 when they finished last or next-to-last every season.
Linebackers Jordan Jones, Denzil Ware and Josh Allen, safety Mike Edwards, running back Benny Snell, tight end C.J. Conrad, offensive lineman Nick Haynes and kicker Austin MacGinnis are all getting preseason All-SEC consideration and have made their way onto various award watch lists.
“We always considered ourselves contenders,” Love said, but it’s nice for someone outside the locker room to at least not laugh at that idea. “We definitely started from the bottom and we’re working our way up. Now we’re going to make our case to be one of the best teams in our conference.”
There is still the matter of Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. Kentucky has lost seven straight and 18 of 20 against the Bulldogs. The Cats have lost 30 in a row to the Gators. They’ve lost five consecutive and 31 of 32 to the Volunteers.
Step 1 in the pursuit of respect was beating the bottom of the league — “some teams we didn’t beat before, coming up up and getting more wins, and staying in the game with other teams,” Edwards said — but the next step, toward deeper and lasting respect, is taking down at least one of the big three in the East.
These Wildcats, who return 17 starters from their first bowl team in six years, are talking like that’s the expectation in 2017.
“People call us a sleeper,” Edwards said. “I just say we’re on the come-up, really, and everybody should watch out for us. We’re gonna get these wins.”
Johnson said there’s a new vibe around Kentucky football, not just here at SEC Media Days but back in Lexington, inside the team’s locker room. Self-respect, after all, is the best kind.
“We know that we will be contending to be the SEC East champions and SEC champions,” he said, not even flinching as he delivered that bold proclamation. “I’m really, really excited to see what we can do this year.”