BOZICH | Will Kentucky's upset of Louisville translate into SEC success?
Can Kentucky translate the momentum from its victory over Louisville last season into real improvement in the SEC East? That's the challenge for Mark Stoops and his players.
HOOVER, Ala. (WDRB) – There was Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, squinting into the bright TV lights, sitting at a table 20 yards from the podium where Alabama coach Nick Saban held the attention of about 1,000 media members several hours earlier at SEC Football Media Days Wednesday.
These are people who talk football with their Cheerios every morning and again with Paul Finebaum every afternoon. They obsess about the college game so endlessly that they block out four days in the second week of July to preview a season seven weeks away.
They asked Saban about Florida State, Clemson and the struggles of the SEC East.
They asked Johnson about beating Louisville.
They wondered what kind of juice it created for the Kentucky football program because for many who cover SEC football, their farewell snapshot from the Wildcats last season was a 41-38 victory over U of L -- on the same field the Cardinals had overwhelmed Florida State, 63-20.
“We do feel a sense of more respect being at places like this and being around in the SEC,” Johnson said.
“We’re winning tough games for sure. We won a tough one against Mississippi State and obviously against Louisville. Those two games really caught people’s eye and let them know that Kentucky is a contending team. We can do some things and we plan to do some things this year.”
We’re about to discover the rest of the story:
What is the shelf life of the way Kentucky finished last season, finishing 7-5 by winning five of its last eight?
Will a rivalry victory against a Top 25 opponent translate into a genuine upgrade for coach Mark Stoops and his fifth UK team or will it dissolve into little more than a nice recruiting post card?
Finebaum, the guy who kept the conversation focused on SEC football even when the league had three teams in the Elite Eight of the NCAA basketball tournament, said he believes Kentucky is primed to advance in the SEC East.
He likes Florida to win the division. He likes Georgia to finish second.
Finebaum said he is considering picking the Wildcats third – ahead of Tennessee, South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
“I am extremely high on Mark Stoops and Kentucky,” Finebaum said. “There will be a big win this year, whether it’s Tennessee, whether it’s Florida. That puts them in the next echelon. I think Kentucky’s moving up.”
Remember this: After beating Louisville, Kentucky lost to Georgia Tech, 33-18, in the TaxSlayer Bowl. So the victory did not translate into success against a team that finished fifth in the ACC Coastal Division.
It’s understandable to remain skeptical. The program has not delivered a winning record in the SEC in 40 years.
The Wildcats will again close the season against Louisville, this time in Lexington. But the flip side is that Kentucky opens its season (Sept. 2) in Hattiesburg against a Southern Miss team that defeated the Wildcats in Commonwealth Stadium last season.
I asked Stoops what the Louisville victory signaled for his program.
“Positive momentum,” he said.
The coach did not hesitate before answering that question.
“It was very important,” he said “I make no bones about that. We talked about it. We needed to get better as a program to put ourselves in a position to win that game.
“Ironically, if you look at the two (Louisville) games prior to this past year, we were in a better position to win the game and couldn’t finish it, couldn’t win the game …
“I think (UK fans) respect the process in which we’re going about it right now, but a win like that certainly helps our fan base. I know it helps our players. Our players deserve it.
“They’ve worked extremely hard. They paid the price. We put ourselves in a position to win that game and the ball bounced our way that day and we’re going to continue to get better.”
Will the Wildcats be better this season? They should be. A junior or senior should start at 20 of 22 spots on offense and defense. Johnson played winning football at quarterback. Benny Snell ran for nearly 1,100 yards as a freshman. Linebacker Jordan Jones is the top returning tackler in the SEC. Mike Edwards, Derrick Baity and Chris Westry are formidable defensive backs. Plenty of pieces.
Freddie Maggard, the former UK quarterback here for Kentucky Sports Radio, said the discussion about this team’s potential starts on the defensive line, where Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell are gone.
Maggard said if the defensive line delivers the Wildcats can win eight games. If the defensive line wobbles, six is more reasonable.
If the Wildcats win six, the win over Louisville last season will be a footnote. If they win eight, the momentum will be real.
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