No one likes to lose. No member of the Big Blue Nation likes it when the football team loses. Head Coach Mark Stoops really doesn’t like it when the football team loses, so after losing to Auburn 30-27 on Thursday night in a sold out Commonwealth Stadium, he wasn’t happy. The Wildcats had their opportunities, but just couldn’t take advantage of them. The defense, gashed early and often in the first half, stiffened up and played solid in the second. The offense was able to move the ball against the Tiger defense, but suffered too many miscues at the worst times to leave much needed points on the table. When the clock hit all zeroes, the feeling of deflation was palpable among those clad in Blue.
Here’s the thing: the University of Kentucky football team is 4-2. Those two losses are by a combined 8 points. There’s no way to not see that as a positive. In less than 3 years, Coach Stoops has changed the culture of UK football. This doesn’t mean that the players will be perfect. This doesn’t mean that the coaches will call the perfect play at the perfect time. But 6 games into the 2015 season, it’s clear that Stoops and his staff have delivered on something the BBN has been asking for: make the football team competitive in the SEC.
In the SEC East, the Wildcat program is ahead of Vanderbilt (though they will still need to confirm that on the field). The Cats have pulled ahead of South Carolina and with the Ol Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier, retiring, the Gamecocks figure to take a step or two back. I’ll even venture to say that Kentucky has pulled at least even with SEC newcomer Missouri at this point. And by losing to perennial SEC powers Florida and Auburn by a combined 8 points, it’s clear that the Wildcats have become competitive on the field after competing in the very important recruiting battlefield.
Clearly, there is still work to do. Mark Stoops will be the first one to say it (and he has). It’s just folly to say this is the same old Kentucky football team. To date, this team hasn’t been blown out and the Wildcats aren’t winning on any fluke plays. They are competing and giving themselves a chance to win. I know we’re all tired of moral victories, but to not recognize the change in the program is simply not being realistic.
Sitting at 4-2, the Wildcats are two wins away from bowl eligibility, a goal many had for this team in the preseason. The Cats play Vanderbilt and Charlotte, two games they clearly should win, which would give them the magic number of 6. Rivals Tennessee and Louisville are more than beatable and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kentucky would be favored in one or both of those games. Even Georgia and Mississippi State are games that the Cats have a legitimate shot of winning. Before the season, I predicted the Wildcats to finish the season 8-4 and I see no reason to believe they won’t finish with that record.
When your program is in the cellar of the SEC, which is where the Kentucky Wildcats have languished for years, it’s not practical to believe that they will move from worst to first in one season or two. Program growth is made incrementally, not exponentially. There are going to be some growing pains along the way, it’s simply unavoidable. So while we can all be disappointed in the loss to Auburn, it’s not time to be discouraged.