By Dr. John Huang
Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops always chuckles whenever someone asks him about an upcoming “big game.”
“It was always comical to me, about how every game was a make or break for me,” he recently admitted. “What game isn’t (big)? I think that’s all I heard for six years every week in here. I had to chuckle inside because every game’s important to us, and I don’t mean any disrespect by that answer.”
After his Wildcats disrespected Missouri 29-7, Coach Stoops needs to reconsider how he might want to answer questions about big games. Forget about the lukewarm season thus far, because as far as big games are concerned, Kentucky’s remaining four regular season contests loom about as HUGE as they can be.
Direction of the program at stake
How the Wildcats (4-4, 2-4 SEC) perform against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, UT-Martin, and Louisville will go a long way in determining the future direction of the program—a program Stoops has painstakingly built to be legitimately competitive in the big boy conference known as the SEC.
If Kentucky’s season caves and the Wildcats somehow fail to gain bowl eligibility, then all the goodwill built up within the fan base and on recruiting trails takes a serious hit. All the “culture change” rhetoric we’ve heard over the past couple years becomes moot. The magical 10-3 season with Benny and Josh will suddenly be regarded as nothing more than a fortunate fluke—a blip on the radar of respectability. It’ll be as much like lightning in a bottle as Billy Donovan’s consecutive basketball national championship years at Florida.
In other words, Kentucky now plays these remaining four football games with more at stake than just victories. They’re playing for the program—a program poised on the brink of a breakthrough. Recruiting has never been stronger, facilities have never been shinier, and the dream trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game has never been more realistic.
Wildcats need to win these remaining four
Even with their travails at the quarterback position, there’s no reason for Stoops and company to lose any of these remaining four games. All four are against opponents that were deemed horrible in the preseason. Vanderbilt is still horrible. UT-Martin is an FCS school. I don’t care how good Tennessee and Louisville have looked recently, you’re playing them at home. These are all games you should win. No letdowns, no excuses allowed!
Finish 8-4 with another nice bowl appearance, and the program’s upper trend continues. Finish 7-5 or worse, and the jury is still out. Anything less than that, and legitimate questions will arise regarding not only the direction of the program—but whether the program can ever get to the point where they are consistently any good.
It’s more than fair to say these next four games serve as a moratorium on the state of the union. UK players, coaches, and fans need to put it all on the line. It’ll be telling how they respond. There’s more at stake for everyone involved than you might think.
Strap on your helmets boys and girls. It’s time for Kentucky Football to put up or shut up.