Kentucky football

Kentucky football’s on track for a special stretch drive, but it won’t be easy

UK football celebrated 29-26 win over Tennessee 1:01
UK football coach Mark Stoops, running-back Benny Snell Jr., and the rest of the UK football team celebrates a 29-26 win over Tennessee at Kroger Field. Marcus Dorsey mdorsey@herald-leader.com

October 29, 2017 4:30 PM

Nearly every game has gone down to the final snap in a season in which they’ve given their fans reason to complain and celebrate, often in the same game.

And yet eight games in, here are the Kentucky football Wildcats at 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the Southeastern Conference. A second straight bowl trip is clinched. With four regular-season games to go, Mark Stoops’ troops have a chance to do a couple of things that have not been done around here in quite some time.

Win three of its last four games — five games if you include the bowl trip — and Kentucky will own its first nine-win season since Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 Cats finished 9-3 after beating Wisconsin 20-19 in the Hall of Fame Bowl.

Win two of its last three league games and Kentucky will have its first winning SEC season since Fran Curci, Art Still, Derrick Ramsey and Co. led the dominating 1977 Cats to a 10-1 overall mark and a 6-0 conference campaign.

Since then, UK has broken even in conference play just seven times. Curci’s 1979 team went 3-3. So did Claiborne’s 1984 team. Bill Curry’s 1993 edition went 4-4. So did Hal Mumme in 1998 and 1999. Rich Brooks did it in 2006. Stoops’ team went 4-4 last season.

How tough will it be to get over the four-win hump? Mississippi (3-5) comes to town Saturday fresh off blowing a 31-7 lead and losing 38-37 to Arkansas. Then UK travels to Vanderbilt (3-5), which has lost five straight and is 0-5 in the SEC. Before the regular-season finale against Louisville on Nov. 25, Kentucky visits SEC East leader and No. 2-ranked Georgia.

Mathematically, UK could be playing for the SEC East title when it enters Sanford Stadium. At 5-0 in league play, Georgia has tough conference games the next two weeks — home against South Carolina (6-2) on Saturday, then at No. 19 Auburn (6-2) on Nov. 11.

If Georgia slips up in either of those contests and Kentucky survives its next two weeks, the Nov. 18 showdown would be for a trip to the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2 at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

That seems like a stretch, however. And, to be honest, Kentucky’s next two games might not be as easy as they look on paper.

True, Ole Miss has lost starting quarterback Shea Patterson for the season, but the Rebels are 28th nationally in total offense. They put up 23 points on Auburn and 24 on LSU before rolling up 566 yards on the Razorbacks on Saturday. Ineligible for a bowl game because of self-imposed sanctions, and playing for interim head coach Matt Luke, Ole Miss might either (a) throw in the towel, or (b) play free and loose with nothing to lose come Saturday.

Then there’s Vanderbilt, a disappointment after a 3-0 start that included a win over Kansas State, ranked 18th at that time. Still, the Commodores are 2-0 versus Mark Stoops in Nashville. Plus, according to Sagarin’s computer rankings, Vandy has played the third-toughest schedule in the SEC behind Arkansas and Tennessee.

According to Sagarin’s numbers, Kentucky has played the easiest schedule in the league; the 74th toughest in the country. That isn’t a knock. Once the season starts, you can’t control your schedule. You play who you play, and to their credit, the Cats have beaten the teams they were supposed to beat.

Saturday’s 29-26 win over Tennessee was just the latest example. UK has been outgained by every FBS team it has played this year, including 445-371 by the Vols. The Cats lost four fumbles on Saturday night. They completed just seven passes. Yet they found a way to win.

Now they find themselves in position to accomplish something special.

Mississippi at Kentucky

4 p.m. Saturday (SEC)

East SEC Overall This week
Georgia 5-0 8-0 Home to South Carolina
S Carolina 4-2 6-2 At Georgia
Kentucky 3-2 6-2 Home to Ole Miss
Florida 3-3 3-4 At Missouri
Missouri 0-4 3-5 Home to Florida
Tennessee 0-5 3-5 Home to Southern Miss
Vanderbilt 0-5 3-5 Home to Western Kentucky
West SEC Overall This week
Alabama 5-0 8-0 Home to LSU
Auburn 4-1 6-2 At Texas A&M
LSU 3-1 6-2 At Alabama
Miss State 3-2 6-2 Home to Umass
Texas A&M 3-2 5-3 Home to Auburn
Arkansas 1-4 3-5 Home to Coastal Carolina
Ole Miss 1-4 3-5 At Kentucky

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