For a period of time late Friday evening, Kentucky fans could have been forgiven for feeling that they were collectively on top of the world
. Think about it, Big Blue Madness had just finished with one of the biggest musical artists in the country not only stopping by, but clearly wanting to be a part of the team. The rock concert portion of the event was great and on the court, the scrimmage showcased once again that this team is going to be crazy good in unprecedented ways. The UK Football team was taking the field the next day, with a legitimate shot to pull an upset in Death Valley (even Kirk Herbstreit was picking the Cats to win) and if that victory manifested itself, College Gameday would be rolling into town in one week. The dream of the two major sports programs, each competing at the highest levels in the country at the same time, was right on the precipice of occurring, at least a full year before any of us thought it possible. The city of Lexington was abuzz and excitement was definitely in the air.
Then came Saturday night. Like a giant smack across the face, we were given a stern dose of reality in Baton Rouge
, as Kentucky was destroyed in every phase of the game, 41-3. The Cats were dominated, literally from the opening kick, as a bizarre formation started a series of events that left me wondering why college football games have to be so long. It was a good old fashioned SEC road butt whooping and as UK fans went to bed that evening (or called into my postgame show slightly inebriated), the unadulterated joy of the night before was long forgotten.
Still, all hope should not be lost. The game on Saturday was the worst game of the season, but not a predictor of what is to come for the rest of the year.
Everything that could go wrong went wrong for Kentucky and all involved, from the offense to the defense to the special teams to the coaches, had one of their worst performances of their UK tenure. However Mark Stoops said afterwards that he intended to make certain that the game did not "define" the team and he expected a top-level effort versus #1 Mississippi State next week. I agree with Stoops and still think (in an opinion that seems to have me in the distinct minority) that Kentucky can win on Saturday. I don't expect them to but I believe it will be a very competitive game with the nation watching along on CBS.
With that as a backdrop, here are the 5 biggest takeaways from both the football game and Big Blue Madness:
THE LSU GAME
--- The Cats are still one year away from being a factor in the SEC race
: We went into the LSU game with two very different scenarios for Kentucky emerging. On the one hand, it was reasonable to say that the Cats controlled their own destiny in the SEC East. Split the games against the two SEC West schools and UK had three winnable games to finish the conference slate in order to gain a trip to Atlanta. On the other hand, UK would still be an underdog in all six of its final games, thus giving no obvious victory to ensure a Bowl berth and a six win season. So which of these two realities was Kentucky closest to? A trip to the SEC Championship game or needing an upset to make a Bowl game. It turns out that the latter of these two is a better indicator of this team's level. There is no shame in that reality. Most of us coming into the season thought five wins was a realistic goal for the year and making a bowl game would be a HUGE success. The Cats already have those five wins and getting one more is definitely within the realm of possibility. But the notion of making the SEC Championship game was a pipe dream this year (although I think they will be in the hunt next year), and our expectations can now be reset a bit closer to reality.
--- The Special Teams were not very special
: Kentucky was really bad on special teams Saturday...and probably had one of the worst special teams halves in the history of the program. From the bizarre opening kickoff formation (still not sure what they were doing), to the terrible coverage of punts, to the decision by a number of players to not even field the kickoff, it was a complete disaster that otherwise overshadowed a fairly even half. The score was 27-3, but at least 17 of those points were the direct cause of special teams errors. The mistakes became so depressing that the only thing left to do was collectively debate why our coach was wearing his hat backwards (probably slightly too old for that Coach Naivar...unless you are Samuel L Jackson or Dale Earnhardt Jr, wearing a hat backwards after the age of 40 may be a no-no). I assume these are errors that will be corrected as the special teams have generally been ok so far this year. But for one night, it was as bad a cluster as we have ever seen any time a kicker found his way onto the field.
--- No Rhythm could be found on offense
: With the exception of two first half drives, which collectively only ended in three points, UK's offense could find no consistency and the game plan seemed a bit inconsistent. It was unclear exactly how UK wanted to attack LSU's defense, with understandably few attacks on the Tigers' great secondary utilized and no ability to get a regular run game showcased. The most bizarre moment of the first half may have been the key 4th down with UK down 17-3 and beginning to get a little momentum, when the Cats called timeout after LSU brought nine in the box to defend the Wildcat formation. UK came out of the timeout still in the Wildcat, LSU again used nine in the box and the play predictably went nowhere. It wasn't clear what the goal was or what happened during the timeout, but the play symbolized a night of frustration for an offense that simply couldn't get its feet under itself at any point.
--- The Defense Had Some good Moments
: By the time LSU scored early in the second half to go up 34-3, the rout was on and the game lost its competitiveness. But before that moment, the UK defense actually handled itself pretty well. The Cats made some big stops to halt LSU drives that began with good field position. LSU didn't overpower the Defensive front until well into the third quarter and UK's Linebackers had one of their best performances of the year. A lack of depth, fatigue and the overall score ultimately wore them down but the defense did its best to keep UK in the game despite the early errors throughout the first half. That is at least some positive for the staff to build upon on tape that might otherwise be best left in the garbage dump for the week.
--- The Attitude of the team is still good
: One positive about such a young team is that they don't let these losses keep them down. One player after another has gone to social media today to say that they are moving past this loss immediately and are ready to bounce back. With arguably the best team in the country coming into town next week, that is good to see. But such a good opponent and a nationally televised game may actually be helpful in making this team get over the humiliation in Baton Rouge. Pride will be tested and a chance to make a quick redemption on an even larger scale now exists. I firmly believe they will showcase a completely different mindset next week and the game will be very competitive, further proof that this is a different UK football program than we have been used to in recent years.
BIG BLUE MADNESS
--- This Team is Really, Really, Really Good
: The show aspect of Big Blue Madness was good and we will talk about that in a minute, but the real highlight for me was the scrimmage. Look, I know it isn't a secret after the Bahamas trip, but this team is crazy good. With Willie and Trey Lyles now on the floor, it is hard to imagine teams stopping this group. Watching a 6'10" Trey Lyles at the three was amazing, not just because of the size but because it works. On the offensive end, these guys are almost impossible to stop, with tons of scoring options and offensive sets available to John Calipari. The big guys are defensive nightmares, Andrew Harrison is about 20 times better than he was last year, Derrick Willis and Dominique Hawkins are probably the best 11th and 12th players in school history, the pace of play that can be accomplished with this roster on a platoon system is astounding to comprehend and the total athleticism on display is truly special. I know we thought the group last year would be historically good but they were saddled with many unknowns. Not this group...we know how good they are because we have seen it. One never knows if a title will occur because randomness and luck do matter. But over the course of the season, I am not sure how many teams in this school's history will have been better than this one. It is going to be a heck of a ride.
--- Drake was quite the show
: While some aspects of Drake's appearance at Big Blue Madness were understandably mocked on the internet (his attempts during the layup line were cringe worthy and the picture I took above of his shooting form became an internet meme within about an hour on Friday), the effect of his attendance cannot be understated. This is a college basketball event and Drake is one of the biggest music stars in the world...and he attended, wearing UK gear and calling our coach one of "the most important men in my life." That matters...even to those that know or care little about his music. The star power it adds further cements the reputation of Kentucky as the "cool" program in college basketball and showcases that playing here is just on a different level than playing at even the other top schools in America. While he didn't perform or do anything really except introduce Calipari, his presence further feeds into the marketing job that has been done over the years in the Calipari era. Kentucky is the "it" place to play college basketball and there isn't really anywhere else close.
--- Calipari is so confident right now
: He literally dropped the mic. While I thought he might use his current Vince McMahon state to give another "we are college basketball" speech, instead he took another, better approach. With all of us waiting for him to talk, he instead said "enough talking, let's ball." The mic drop caused even Calipari to smirk and the crowd was left screaming. At this point after five years, there isn't much left for Calipari to say. It was a perfect start to the season and confirms once again just how confident Calipari is in this group I think he believes is as good as any he has ever coached.
--- The Recruits Loved It
: We will hear more about this as the week goes on, but from all indications, the recruits were blown away by the experience. Malik Newman said the UK fans were even more passionate than he thought they would be, Stephen Zimmerman's mother commented on how it was as exciting event as she has ever attended and Carlton Bragg spoke about how all the players talked about what it would be like if they played together. It was as good a group of talent as Kentucky has had at Big Blue Madness in many years and if they were to all come, or even if two of the group were to come, Kentucky would be loaded again next year. But as Evan Daniels pointed out on the radio with me on Friday, none of these guys are assured at this point...thus making the visit this weekend so very important. I still think Kentucky is in very good shape with Zimmerman, I like where they stand with Newman, Jaylen Brown is a complete mystery, I expect Brandon Ingram to stay in the Carolina area and I think Carlton Bragg picks Kansas (maybe soon). But no matter what happens, if Kentucky gets any of the five 2015 recruits that were here, the excitement of the Madness event itself will be a big reason why they pull the trigger and come to Lexington.
--- Matthew Mitchell kills it once again
: I am still amazed by Matthew Mitchell. While I knew what he was going to do (we filmed that video about a week ago...and Ryan's part still makes me laugh), seeing him get up and sing to the crowd as he did was quite impressive. The man can sing, he can dance and he is a great showman...but he does it while also knowing that at any point it could all blow up in his face. That is part of what makes these performances so good every year. I am not sure how he tops this one, but it will be very hard. The performance (and two minute KSR-included entrance video) are below if you missed them:
So there you have it...big week ahead, including a KSR appearance in Ashland on Wednesday at Mattress Warehouse for a remote.
It all culminates in one of the biggest games in Commonwealth in a decade on Saturday as the #1 team in America comes to town. Should be fun....