BOZICH | Kentucky Stuck On 0-8 SEC Flight Path
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – If you're convinced there is no drama remaining in this Kentucky football season, you have not done enough research.
Missouri handled the Wildcats, 48-17, in Commonwealth Stadium Saturday. The Tigers are a program on track to play Alabama in the SEC championship game. Really. They have presented the Wildcats with another barrier, but their success is also a blueprint on program building.
If Kentucky fails to win one of its three remaining SEC games, they'll become the first program to deliver back-to-back 0-8 SEC seasons since Vanderbilt in 2001-02.
The Wildcats (2-7, 0-5) will also be staring at UK's first back-to-back winless SEC seasons in 71 years.
"There are so many areas where we need to improve," UK coach Mark Stoops said. "We need play-making ability. We need big, physical guys. We need a lot of things. We need linebackers. You've got to have a secondary."
Here is the challenge – and the consolation – for Stoops and his determined first-year coaching staff. Think about what Missouri was – and think about what Missouri has become.
There was joy in Lexington when Missouri was welcomed into the league before the 2012 season.
Unlike Georgia, Florida or South Carolina, Missouri was a program you'd expect the Wildcats to be able to push around, at least once in awhile.
Nobody would confuse Missouri with the confirmed SEC heavyweights. There's nothing spectacular about the tradition of Missouri football. The Tigers' recruiting base? Shrug.
Go back and check what the college football know-it-alls were writing about the Tigers before this season. They were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East. Gary Pinkel, the Missouri coach, was mentioned near the top of those Coaches on the Hot Seat lists.
That's not the way it has played out. The Tigers came to Commonwealth Stadium Saturday the ninth-ranked team in the nation – and they looked the part, beating the Wildcats as decisively as anybody other than Alabama has beaten UK this season.
Make a note that Missouri did it with a backup quarterback. Make another note that Missouri is now 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the league. Check the Tigers' roster. Pinkel and his staff have shown the ability to go outside the modest homestate recruiting base to build this team.
The Missouri pre-game press notes feature 37 notable players. Of those 37, 25 played high school football outside Missouri. Texas is the spot where Missouri found 14 of those key guys.
Now Missouri is just another barrier that Kentucky must climb as Stoops tries to lift the program in the SEC East. The Tigers can run. The Tigers can throw. The Tigers can win the East in only their second SEC season with victories against Mississippi and Texas A&M. Kentucky, remember, has never won the East.
On this day, Kentucky scored first -- a 21-yard field goal. Then the Wildcats forced a fumble. Missouri punted away its third possession.
Perfect formula for an upset?
Kentucky does not have the players to deliver an upset. Missouri scored touchdowns on its next four possessions. The Wildcats' coaches and players were not pleased with the way Kentucky responded to the challenge.
"After that first drive, I didn't think we played very well," said UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown. "We challenged the group at halftime. (Quarterback Jalen Whitlow) came out and showed some leadership. This group is hungry on offense. We are starving for somebody to take the reins.
"We're looking for production and leadership. More times than not, that comes from the quarterback position. I thought he did some really gritty things in the third quarter. He ran the ball some. Sometimes he pulled it. He had a look in his eye that he wasn't going to be denied in the third quarter. We need more of that. We need more of that."
"We played a game that we don't want to play but at the same time we've got to come back and pick it up," said UK receiver Javess Blue.
"I felt like we had the energy at the beginning of the game but we kind of took a step back once the D line started coming at us hard. The O line just failed at the end -- to the strong defense and the blitz they kept coming at us with."
It's a three-game season for the Wildcats as they try to avoid finishing 0-8 in the SEC in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history. UK's conference losing streak has reached 13 games, third-longest in school history.
Checking the Sagarin computer ratings, this is the way it looks for the Wildcats over the final three games:
*Vanderbilt will be favored by about 9 ½ in Nashville next Saturday. Vandy has already defeated Georgia and Florida.
*Georgia will be favored by about 20 when the Wildcats visit Athens, Nov. 23.
*Tennessee will be favored, but only by a point, when the Volunteers come to Commonwealth Stadium Nov. 30.
"It's hard," Stoops said. "You've just got to get back to work. You've got to stick to what I preach all the time and that's getting better ... I may get frustrated, but I'm not discouraged."
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