Kavosiey Smoke and the UK offense has to get untracked if the Cats are going to beat Tennessee Saturday. (UK Athletics Photo)
The Las Vegas oddsmakers shocked many Kentucky fans last week when they had Mississippi State favored to beat then No. 12 UK. I actually thought that “lack of respect” might motivate the Cats.
Obviously I was wrong as Kentucky was no match for the Bulldogs in a 31-17 loss. If not for a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown by Josh Ali in the first quarter, UK would not have had a truly big play the entire game and probably never would have had the lead.
That loss crushed the Big Blue Nation. No more national playoff talk even if it was a long shot at best before. No more talk about how at worst an 11-1 season can lead to a Sugar Bowl berth.
Instead, UK fans were heartbroken, disappointed and mad with UK’s performance. So was coach Mark Stoops and linebacker Jacquez Jones said the players were mad, too.
Maybe what is most worrisome is that next on the schedule for Kentucky is Tennessee, a team that has turned out to be better than expected this year and has shown it has an offense that could give the UK defense fits.
However, Sunday convinced me the respect nationally for UK now might be better than the respect the Cats have in the Bluegrass.
First, UK dropped only from 12th to 18th in the Associated Press rankings and to 17th in the coaches poll. After the 31-17 debacle, I expected UK to be in the 21-23 range.
Second, Kentucky opened as either a three-point or four-point favorite over Tennessee in the Las Vegas line. That tells you those guys in Vegas who make a living predicting who wins and by how much still think UK can beat the Vols.
Tennessee is coming off a bye week — maybe it will derail the Vols like UK’s bye week did the Cats at Mississippi State. The Vols have also lost their last two games to Mississippi and Alabama.
“We have to come back and work,” receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, who had nine catches at both Georgia and Mississippi State, said after the State loss. “At the end of the day, it (the season) is not over. We still have a chance to do things that have not been done in a long time. We just have to come back to work and come out with a different mentality.”
He’s right. A 10-2 finish is still possible and who would not have taken that when the year started.
I thought before the season started that Mississippi State was the key game of the season because I have heard too many UK players talk about how that is a “weird” place to play. My theory was that if UK came out of the first six games 4-2 (I conceded a loss to Georgia and felt one to either Florida or LSU was likely) what happened at State would determine whether UK could have a good or average season. If UK was 3-3 after six games, the State game might have determined if UK was going to a bowl. And if UK had been 6-1, a win over State would have put UK in position for a historic season.
Now a 10-win special season is still possible. The defense has to regroup and tackle. Quarterback Will Levis has to figure out how to look for receivers other than just Wan’Dale Robinson. Chris Rodriguez has to get his confidence and ball security back or another back has to produce. The Big Blue Wall has to go back to being dominant.
Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? I don’t know.
Saturday night I worried it would not happen and that this team had imploded. Today I feel like jumping off the cliff was a bit premature. Let’s see what happens Saturday because a win would give UK wins over Florida, LSU and Tennessee in the same season and a 7-2 record with three games left. That’s pretty special and I am guessing most UK fans would agree — and will make Kroger Field a special place Saturday night to hopefully help the Cats beat the Vols.