When Kentucky finished the 2017 season with their first back-to-back seven-win regular seasons since 2006 and 2007, fans didn't celebrate like many expected they would at the time of Mark Stoops' hiring. "Just give us six or seven wins each season," the collective fan base said back in November of 2012. It didn't have to be special, a regular bowl appearance would be just enough to be satisfied.
When they finally broke that threshold last season with another seven-win season and a Music City Bowl bid, though, fans couldn't help but think of the missed opportunities for even greater success. The heartbreaking Florida loss to keep the dreaded streak alive in week four and the inexcusable defeat five weeks later to a pedestrian Ole Miss team lingered. The staff told fans to dream big, and after years of development and recruiting success, they knew a nine-win season with such a favorable schedule should have been reality. The bowl loss to keep the Cats from jumping into that eight-win threshold made the sting worse.
Fast forward through the offseason, and Kentucky managed to keep all draft-eligible juniors around for another run at history, the team's young talent was developing at a rapid pace, and the recruiting class was solid once again. All of the pieces were there, and room for excuses was not.
We knew this season had the potential to be special from the jump, but the giant grey cloud that is "Kentucky football history" cast a haunting shadow over the program. How "Kentucky football" would it be to have all of the puzzle pieces in place for one of the best seasons in program history and just... choke...?
Kentucky has finished with nine or more regular season victories just three times in program history, so why would this year be any different, even with the surplus of talent and experience?
Capped off with a 56-10 victory against Louisville last night, the dream of a special season finally came to fruition. Kentucky took home their ninth victory of the regular season, the first time they've accomplished that feat since 1977. And with the victory, odds are good the Cats will play in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando for the program's first New Year’s Day bowl game since the Outback Bowl in 1999.
How it happened, however, makes everything so much sweeter for Kentucky fan base. It wasn't just a rivalry win, it was an effort that demoralized the Cardinals in every facet of the game imaginable.
Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel said it best after the game: “You know that high school team that knows they can’t beat you, so they just try to fight you? That’s who we just played.”
We jokingly call Louisville our "little brother," but last night they proved to be just that. From the start, they used the seconds immediately after each play to push, shove, and talk trash, even when Kentucky had just managed a successful play. They'd step over and push players trying to get up, come in on late hits, and celebrate following dirty plays. There's undisciplined football, and then there's whatever act Louisville put on last night. It was like placing a hand on your younger sibling's forehead while they throw punches at nothing but the air.
Throwing for 261 yards and three touchdowns, Terry Wilson carved the Cardinal defense like a Thanksgiving turkey. Two players finished with over 100 rushing yards, and four finished with 45 or more on the ground to go with five total rushing scores. The Kentucky defense allowed 226 rushing yards, but 147 of those came on just three plays for Louisville. In most instances, records and statistics are thrown out the window in rivalry games. But instead of playing to that narrative, the Wildcats took the logo off Louisville's helmets and played them for what they were: an abysmal 2-10 football team with the foundational support of a twig hut in an earthquake. It was an absolute trouncing on both sides of the football.
It was the final touch and perfect ending to a regular season filled with so many joyous and memorable moments for the Big Blue Nation.
They had the historic victory in The Swamp to defeat Florida for the first time in 31 years, the year's signature moment. They defeated a ranked team in Mississippi State by beating them at their own game: out-muscling NFL talent in the trenches. They extended their winning streak over the media darling South Carolina Gamecocks. They had a miraculous game-winning touchdown drive against Missouri on the road. For a week, SEC Championship and College Football Playoff dreams were alive, leading to an absolutely wild atmosphere in Lexington the first week of November. And to put the icing on the cake, they obliterated their rival to close out the season. Checked boxes all around.
When it comes to specific player storylines, Kentucky had the star power to help garner national attention in Benny Snell and Josh Allen. To take it a step further, they each had their name firmly in the Heisman race at one point or another. They had an electric up-and-coming quarterback with interesting storylines of his own in Terry Wilson, who had several star moments of his own. Lynn Bowden emerged as a star playmaker, AJ Rose thrived in a backup role, David Bouvier made clutch play after clutch play, etc. They had their struggles, but in nine games, they did enough to pull off the victory.
On defense, the entire unit stole the show from start to finish, firmly placing themselves as one of the best units not just in the SEC, but the entire nation. Mark Stoops came in praised as a defensive guru, but he hasn't had the talent or experience to convert that into consistent success thus far in his Kentucky career. With his unit this year, they more than made up for past years. Derrick Baity, Mike Edwards, and Darius West anchored the secondary, Kash Daniel and Jordan Jones played disciplined football in the middle, and the pass rush centered around Allen was elite. While others in the nation went with gimmicky offenses simply hoping to outscore opponents, Kentucky implemented (and thrived under) an old-school style of football of an elite defense and an established run game.
Beyond the Xs and Os, the emotional pull was also obviously there with Josh Paschal and John Schlarman and their battles with cancer. Above all else, fans were able to rally behind those two fighting for their lives, which eventually resulted in Paschal making a triumphant return to the field last week against Middle Tennessee State. It was a remarkable moment for not only the Kentucky football program but the entire college football scene as a whole.
Everything you could possibly hope for, the Cats gave you that at one point or another in their historic 2018 regular season. There were frustrations, but the successes absolutely outweighed that. No matter the age, fans were treated with one of the most special seasons of their entire lifetime.
Those focused on the losses or coaching miscues/frustrations have to realize that missed opportunities and a failed season are not mutually exclusive. It's okay to be upset with specific play calls or crushing losses without taking away from the grand scheme of things and the overall progression of the program.
To put it into perspective, Georgia suffered a 20-point beatdown against LSU earlier this year, who lost to Texas A&M by a score of 74-72 in seven overtimes last night. Florida lost by 21 points at home against Missouri, and Michigan lost their College Football Playoff bid with a 23-point loss to Ohio State, who lost 49-20 to the fighting Jeff Brohms of Purdue. College football is weird, and great teams lose games they have no business losing. Kentucky just so happened to be one of those great teams losing a game they should not have against Tennessee a little over two weeks ago. And to an even lesser extent, the same goes for their week-six loss on the road against Texas A&M.
Kentucky will finish the regular season in the top-15 of the official College Football Playoff rankings, with a New Year's Day bowl bid forthcoming. There will be some major losses with seniors and (likely) Benny Snell after this season, but there is also ridiculous talent lining the roster to keep that momentum going forward into next year and the distant future.
There may be a drop-off, but it won't be as significant as some may believe.
Until then, however, this team has one final bowl game with the potential to complete just the third 10-win season in Kentucky football history.