By Dr. John Huang
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) – To play or not to play? That’s been the question for the football gods ever since the Coronavirus burst onto the scene at the beginning of the year. For the past several months, eager UK fans have waited with bated breath, wondering if the season would even materialize.
Make no mistake about it, we all felt the roller coaster of emotions during that time. One week it looked like football would be played come hell or high water. The very next week we felt the season was curtains. Now, with Kentucky and Auburn actually set to kick off this upcoming Saturday, there’s one thing we do know for sure. It’ll be a season like no other, and BBN better be ready to capitalize.
Auburn out of gate
Never has Kentucky played a schedule like the one laid out for them this year. Ten quality SEC opponents, all chomping at the bit to see where they stack up within the conference pecking order. For the Cats, it’s the big bad No. 8-ranked Auburn Tigers under Gus Malzahn right out of the gate. Let it be known that not since 1960 has Kentucky opened the season with a conference opponent (UK lost to Georgia Tech 23 – 13 that year). In fact, if memory serves me correct, the Wildcats usually go out of their way to schedule a patsy for their yearly opening day festivities.
That’s certainly been the case during the Mark Stoops era. A quick check of the party invitations over the past few years indicates a list of not so highfalutin foes. Western Kentucky, Tennessee Martin, Louisiana, Southern Mississippi (twice), Central Michigan, and Toledo have served as the sacrificial lambs. So how crucial will it be to get off to a good start against a quality SEC opponent that can punch you in the face?
Importance of starting fast
“I will mention it a few times throughout this week,” Stoops cautioned on his first official weekly meeting with the media. “Starting fast. It’s the opener. We’re on the road. And it’s an early morning kickoff. Starting fast is key. You gotta come out swinging. You gotta come out fast. So we will talk about that and try to prepare for that the best that we can.”
There’s reason for optimism that the Wildcats can get off to a quick start. Stoops had this to say about why he’s confident his team will do well.
“Certainly, an experienced quarterback helps,” he explained. “An experienced football team helps. In these uncertain times, in the way things have been so different, an experienced football team is something that I like. A team with strong leadership is something that I like. A team that is very tough physically and mentally, I like.”
I like what Stoops likes. I also like the fact Kentucky is as loaded as it’s ever been in several key positions. The offensive line—or Big Blue Wall—has gotten plenty of press, and the Kentucky backfield they’re blocking for is bursting with proven talent. On the defensive side of the ball, the line can also go three deep, and the guys in the secondary might just be considered collectively as the greatest of all time.
It’s the schedule, stupid!
But before we all start drinking the blue Kool-Aid, here’s the one major reason to give us all pause. IT’S THE SCHEDULE, STUPID! Kentucky plays in the toughest league in the land, and the ten-game gauntlet could ultimately be their undoing.
“The thing that’s out of our control is the schedule,” Stoops lamented. “It’s brutal. It’s brutally hard. Again, I sit there and watch other folks and just shake my head in amazement at how difficult and how well prepared each and every team we play is. That’s the challenge.”
It all starts Saturday at high noon on the SEC Network. A loss against Auburn certainly won’t doom the season, but a high-quality win right out of the gate could spur Kentucky on to a season like no other.
Dr. John Huang is lead writer for JustTheCats.com. His new book, CUT TO THE CHASE, is now available on Amazon. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.