The football Wildcats flirted with history for about a week, those giddy days leading up to their showdown with Georgia. Undefeated and feeling good about itself, Kentucky had a shot at a seventh straight victory without a loss and a legitimate chance at a trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
The Bulldogs, for the most part, spoiled that. Of course, should they stumble and fall the Cats would still have a shot at Atlanta. But Kentucky would need an awful lot of help from Florida, Missouri and Tennessee, the SEC teams still on the Georgia schedule. That team we saw hang a loss on the Wildcats doesn’t look as though it’s going to bow down to anyone.
Still, the Cats can make some history. Should they run the table, with other football dominoes falling just so, they could find themselves in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since Bear Bryant called the Bluegrass home. Some prognosticators say Peach Bowl for an 11-1 Kentucky team and that ain’t bad, either.
Of course, the table that needs runnin’ isn’t exactly smooth and inviting. And Kentucky has been here before, at basically the midway point of the season, needing just a scant one or two wins to make it a special season.
In 2014, on the heels of Stoops’ inaugural season at the helm, UK burst out of the starting blocks with a 59-14 rout of FCS opponent Tennessee-Martin. Braylon Heard (remember him?) ran for TDs of 73 and 43 yards.
In fact, Kentucky raced off to victories in five of its first six games that season, including a 45-38 upset of South Carolina. You might remember that one. Bud Dupree, plucking a tipped USC pass out of the air at the six-yard line and running it in for the game-clinching touchdown… Jojo Kemp, endearing himself to the Wildcat faithful by running over and through the Gamecock defense from the Wildcat formation, racking up 131 yards and three TDs.
But after that fifth win, the joy ended. Kentucky hit the skids, dropping its last six. The most bitter – a 44-40 setback at Louisville, which saw the Cats take a 40-37 lead inside the last six minutes. But Lexington native Kyle Bolin led the Cardinals on their game-winning touchdown drive and the Wildcats would finish one victory shy of a bowl bid that season.
It was maddening, but it happened again the following year in a similar way. The Cats jumped out to four wins in their first five games, the only loss a 14-9 home setback to Florida. Then the stumbling began.
Kentucky would lose five straight, including a 21-17 nightmare at Vanderbilt. The Commodores scored on a 37-yard TD pass off a trick play, the receiver sneaking onto the field and making the catch uncovered. The Cats also surrendered a pick-six and came up short twice as the ‘Dores made goal-line stands.
Still, after a win over Charlotte, a bowl bid was there for the taking. All the Wildcats needed was a home-field win over Louisville.
And wouldn’t you know it — Kentucky raced off to a 24-7 halftime lead, linebacker Josh Forrest supplying the fireworks with an 81-yard pick-six.
But late in the half, a kid named Lamar Jackson came off the bench and took over at quarterback, directing the Cardinals to their only first-half points, himself running it in from 16 yards away.
The second half was a preview of the 2016 season, when Jackson would win the Heisman Trophy. He led the Cards to a 38-24 comeback win, dashing (again) UK hopes for a bowl bid.
So once again, the second half of the season awaits, with great possibilities.
There are so many differences between the Kentucky program then, compared to now, starting with the roster. Stoops and his staff have piled up more talent than Kentucky has seen since Fran Curci was here, which is why there’s a real shot at 11-1.
Unfortunately, Saturday’s opponent has come to life under Mike Leach, looking in no way like the team Kentucky dominated last season in Lexington. And Tennessee has been building confidence by beating some of the SEC’s have-nots. But wins are wins and the Volunteers are two weeks away.
A special season, one of the best in UK football history, is within arm’s reach. All the the Wildcats have to do is reach out and take it.