Kirk Herbstreit’s recent prediction of Kentucky experiencing a ‘breakthrough’ campaign in 2016 warrants a two-word response:
For the last four-plus months, I have been touting the Wildcats as a sleeper contender for the SEC East title.
I’ve been presuming greatness for playmakers like quarterback Drew Barker, running back Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams (12 career touchdowns), receiver Garrett Johnson (headlines the SEC East’ best corps of wideouts), defensive end Denzil Ware (5.5 tackles for loss as a freshman) and defensive tackle Matt Elam.
And for the kicker, I have been shamelessly walking the plank of potential embarrassment in declaring that Kentucky will beat UGA on Nov. 5 – perhaps the Wildcats’ most significant home victory since toppling No. 1 LSU in 2007.
Which brings us to the following questions: What took you so long, Herbie? Or were you merely saving this gem for the rubber-chicken circuit in nearby Louisville?
Mini-rant aside, it’s good to finally have some company on the “Kentucky” bandwagon. Coach Mark Stoops (three-year record: 12-24) has been recruiting like a fiend for roughly 40 months, and that labor will soon bear fruit in Lexington.
The Kentucky powers-that-be will be rewarded in another sense: Stoops’ work will soon convert to victories, sparing the athletic department the awkwardness of doling out a reported $15.5 million buyout of the coach’s contract, if the Wildcats sought change at the top after this season.
In other words, it’s in everybody’s best interest that Herbstreit’s prophecy comes to fruition.
“I’ll be very surprised if (Stoops) doesn’t have a breakthrough year this year,” Herbstreit said last week, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Now, a breakthrough year for Kentucky isn’t (the same as) a breakthrough year for Florida or Georgia. A breakthrough year for Kentucky – if they were to get to a bowl game and get to seven or eight wins – that would be monumental.”
Eight wins would indeed be great for a Wildcats program that has averaged only 4.1 victories since 2010. But for me, monumental would apply to the specter of beating Florida, Tennessee, UGA in the same season.
Or, at least taking two of three.
Remember the 1977 Kentucky squad, a 10-1 juggernaut (led by defensive end Art Still) that swept through SEC competition but ultimately took a backseat to 11-1 Alabama? (The schools didn’t meet in conference play). That year marked the last time the Wildcats rolled through the Big Three opposition of UGA, Tennessee and Florida … by an average victory margin of 15 points.
The program’s actual ‘breakthrough’ occurred the previous season, with the Wildcats notching eight victories and allowing a grand total of nine points in their final four games (all victories).
For the 2016 squad, 8-4 is an eminently doable number to reach (minus the 70s-era stingy defense), factoring in the need to carry at least two of four ‘swing’ games (and yes, we’re presuming road defeats to Alabama and Tennessee):
@ FLORIDA (Sept. 10)
The Gators haven’t dropped a September home game since 2008, when quarterback Tim Tebow – just minutes after a devastating home loss to Ole Miss – promised the world his team would rally from this setback and claim the SEC East title.
Little did Tebow know that Florida’s subsequent 10-game winning streak would result in the second BCS national championship of the Urban Meyer era.
Fast forward to the present: Kentucky must be in peak form for this early-season showdown, capitalizing on Florida’s personnel uncertainty at quarterback (Luke Del Rio, Austin Appleby), running back (replacing Kelvin Taylor) and wide receiver (50/50 call on Antonio Callaway‘s immediate return from suspension).
VANDERBILT (Oct. 8)
The days of Vandy being automatic cannon fodder for the SEC’s upper-echelon clubs are apparently over, meaning that Kentucky must quickly rebound from the emotional and physical toll of facing Alabama the previous week.
There’s also a game-within-the-game aspect at play here: Right now, Vanderbilt’s “Triplets” grouping of sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur (four-star recruit, played well as a freshman), junior tailback Ralph Webb (2,059 career rushing yards, nine touchdowns) and receiver Trent Sherfield (school record-holder for single-game receiving yards) might be more advanced than Kentucky’s playmaking trio of Barker, ‘Boom’ Williams and Garrett Johnson.
However, there’s plenty of time for the Wildcats to reverse that rationale.
@ MISSOURI (Oct. 29)
Kentucky arguably has the most balanced schedule among SEC East teams, meaning there aren’t a lot of Admiral Ackbar-inspired “trap” options. However, the Mizzou game nestles perfectly between home dates with Mississippi State (Oct. 22) and UGA (Nov. 5), followed by a crucial road test against Tennessee (Nov. 12).
On paper, the Wildcats should tame the Tigers without much incident. But college football games, especially within conference, aren’t played in a vacuum.
It’s Kentucky’s obligation to give full effort every Saturday … but it’s also human nature to play down to the competition – especially with heated rivals next the docket.
UGA (Nov. 5)
This could be a major turning point for Stoops and Co. His squad enters the season with middling expectations, but the heralded 2014 class (six 4-star recruits) should be primed to take the UK program to new heights.
As such, UGA’s rebuilt front seven should have its hands full against ‘Boom’ Williams, who’s now a rock-solid candidate for 1,200 rushing yards and/or double-digit touchdowns.
On the flip side … will freshman quarterback Jacob Eason (a Matthew Stafford clone, on paper) be ready for full-time reps come November? And will the Dawgs bear the look of an unbalanced machine, putting substantially more trust in the rushing attack (Nick Chubb, Sony Michel) than the passing game?
Either way, the Kentucky game – awkwardly sandwiched between high-profile encounters with Florida and Auburn – portends to be a major test for UGA.
Bottom line: Forget about Georgia’s average victory spread of 32.7 points against Kentucky, citing the last three seasons. In the eyes of Wildcats fans – and Kirk Herbstreit – those days are long gone.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.