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Big-Boy Football

Barion Brown and the 7th-ranked Wildcats prepare for a raucous Big-Boy showdown (Dr. Michael Huang Photo).

(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – If you took a quick glance at the most recent AP College Football top-10 rankings, you might just notice something perceptively askew. Sure, the traditional powerhouses Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, Clemson, and USC occupy their usual slots one through six. But sitting at No. 7, however, are the Kentucky Wildcats—a program rarely mentioned when discussing the merits of a top-tier national ranking.

After their 31 – 23 win over Northern Illinois on Saturday, the Wildcats moved up further into that rarified air. It’s the program’s highest ranking since the 1977 Fran Curci coached team went 10 – 1 and ended the year ranked No. 6 in the country. For those of us lucky (and old enough) to remember that magical run, we all agree it was a heck of a lot of fun hanging with the big boys through the grind of the entire regular season.

With their inconsistent play through their first four games, I’m not sure how deserving this current version of the Wildcats are of that lofty ranking. One thing’s for sure: Wildcat fans need to enjoy this ride to the top. They need to savor it for all it’s worth, embrace it and cherish it—because you never know when it might be another forty-five years before we experience it again.

“I like it there, and I’d like it to stay there,” Coach Mark Stoops said when asked about the elevated national ranking. “That’s really what’s most important. Sure, it helps with the fanbase and showing up and having people [at the games]. It helps with recruiting.”

Those comments shouldn’t surprise anyone. Stoops has never been one to poo-poo any sort of national recognition for his team. But is he concerned at all about all the accolades and praise going to the players’ heads?

“Hopefully it motivates them to practice hard to stay that way,” he acknowledged. “Because we know we have a very tough stretch starting here this week. Our team is mature enough, certainly there are some young guys that still need to be taught quite a bit. The leadership of this team knows that’s fine, but it’s really about how we practice and how we prepare to get ready for a really good team and another tough challenge.”

That next challenge comes in the form of the Ole Miss Rebels. Coach Lane Kiffin’s team lies in wait, likewise undefeated and ranked 14th in the country. A punishing ground attack (No. 4 in the FBS in rushing) and a surprisingly stout defense (No. 29 in FBS) has everyone in Oxford primed and pumped for the high-noon (EST) showdown.

To say that it’s a big game would be a bit of an understatement. After all, it is the SEC—Big-Boy Football at its finest. The winner will undoubtedly continue their rise up the rankings. For Stoops and company, the challenge promises to be an uphill climb.

You’re playing on the road. The O-line is a work in progress. The running game has been in the dumpster, eagerly awaiting the return of Chris Rodriguez from his four-game suspension. To add fuel to the fire, you’re a seven-point underdog, and your coach has never won at an opposing West Division venue.

“I don’t even know what it is,” Stoops said when asked about his dismal road record against SEC West Division foes. “I’m sure you’ll point it out for me.”

Not that he thinks it matters, but Stoops remains winless (0 – 10) versus SEC West divisional foes on the road. It’s high time for that to change. As far as the O-line and the running game is concerned, Stoops elected to leave us with a relatively positive message.

“There’s optimism there for us with that growth,” he said. “We’ve seen it before, when you have new guys and you’ve got new positions. They’re getting experience with every game; they’re getting better with every opportunity. There’re moments that it sticks out, but there’re a lot of good things they’re doing as well.”

As for Rodriguez’s long-awaited return, Stoops emphasized that C-Rod was no savior.

“For Chris, he just needs to be himself…and we need the people around him, the other guys around him that are playing, to do their job and to strain and to do things better in certain moments.”

Will that be enough for Kentucky to pull off the win? For these two big-boy programs duking it out on an early October Saturday down south, your guess is as good as mine.

Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669

Dr. John Huang
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. As a lifelong Wildcat fan, a fledgling author, and an occasional guest host of Just the Cats Radio, he's now living out his dream as a UK Sports columnist. Dr. Huang also covers professional sports on a regional level. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs or contact him @KYHuangs@gmail.com. If you enjoy his writing, you can also read more at www.huangswhinings.com.
http://www.huangswhinings.com

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