Kentucky's dreams of playing in Atlanta for the SEC Championship were crushed on Saturday night, as the Georgia Bulldogs defeated the Wildcats 34-17 with the entire college football world watching.
It finished as a 17-point deficit, and despite a late push by the Wildcats, Georgia was in control from start to finish. The Bulldogs dominated at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football by mauling the Wildcat defenders and creating holes on offense, while the defense made Kentucky's running backs incredibly uncomfortable. UK's bread is buttered in the trenches, but Georgia flipped that script on them in a hurry.
With a sold-out Kroger Field crowd, CBS putting the game in primetime, and SEC Nation in town, the opportunity was there for the Kentucky football program to break down that barrier as a major contender in college football. They just couldn't convert.
It was a reality check for Kentucky for both good and bad.
The biggest takeaway is that while the Wildcats may have separated from the middle of the pack in the SEC as a program (a massive achievement in itself), they just aren't quite there yet from a talent perspective to push Alabama, Georgia, and LSU for a serious shot at the SEC title. The talent and size gap between the Cats and Dawgs was obvious on both sides of the ball.
But that's not a bad thing.
What Mark Stoops has been able to do in six years is absolutely remarkable. Mitch Barnhart put his faith and trust in the Kentucky head coach by giving him time to build this program, and he has done just that. When he was first hired, fans begged for bowl eligibility on a consistent basis with eight wins sprinkled in every once in a while. They accepted the "basketball school" narrative, but hoped the football team could at least capture their attention in the weeks leading up to opening tip.
Even with the most recent loss, however, Kentucky is now in contention to win out and finish the season 10-2, likely earning a spot in the Fiesta or Peach Bowl and a finish in the top-ten of the College Football Playoff rankings. If they lose on the road against Tennessee, but take care of business against Middle Tennessee State and Louisville, they'll have to "settle" for the Citrus Bowl. Seriously.
The big picture for Stoops, the football staff, and the players is to eventually win the SEC East, contend for the conference title, and earn a spot in the Playoffs. They even have a CFP bracket taped up in the training facilities, something that has been mocked by opposing fans for two years now. Stoops has put this team in position to be in the conversation in each of those three categories, which is unheard of. The standards and expectations of both those within the organization and those on the outside have risen.
Kentucky's loss on Saturday was a reality check that they may not be quite ready to make that next leap into elite status, but to say this isn't a great football team with potential to sustain similar success year each year would just be a lie. They're knocking on the door of something special not only this year, but in the future, as well.
From a pure game perspective, we also learned a lot about the rest of this season and the team going forward.
One of the biggest and most necessary reality checks may have been with Eddie Gran and how he should run this offense in the immediate and distant future.
Quarterback Terry Wilson had his second-consecutive impressive outing through the air, finishing with 226 yards and a touchdown on 23-29 passing, out-throwing an SEC quarterback by over 100 yards in back-to-back weeks. More specifically, he had a remarkable second half, throwing for 160 yards and a touchdown on 14-18 passing in just four drives.
But the success didn't happen until the offense opened up a bit in crunch time.
The JUCO transfer had less time to work in a faster setting, allowing him to make quick judgments and adjust on the fly rather than overthinking the situation and making mistakes. Following up from Wilson's production in the two-minute offense against Missouri, it's clear the Kentucky quarterback thrives in an up-tempo offense with space to work with.
But it's obvious Eddie Gran is in a tough predicament, which has led to frustration in the fanbase.
When you have a generational talent at running back like Benny Snell, your offense becomes a bit one-dimensional out of necessity. Kentucky has won games by slowing the pace down, milking the clock, and wearing out opponents from a physicality standpoint. You have to play to Snell's style of play because his talent warrants that. He has been a safety net, where he has been able to make magic out of nothing more often than not. That being said, he's been unable to be himself over the last two weeks, failing to break the 100-yard rushing mark against Missouri and Georgia. He also hasn't had the highlight-worthy plays, managing a rush longer than 20 yards in just one out of Kentucky's last five games.
The offense hasn't scored more than 20 points in the last four games. With so much talent and (likely) only four more games in Snell's Kentucky career, do you go away from the slow grind that we're used to? Or do you start building toward the future with Wilson by spreading the offense out a bit and speeding things up to make the sophomore quarterback more comfortable?
Kentucky's loss to Georgia may force Gran's hand to go with the latter. Wilson has developed legitimate chemistry with Lynn Bowden, and there's a great chance they become one of the best one-two punches in the SEC in the next year or two. AJ Rose has looked fantastic in limited opportunities, especially when catching passes out of the backfield. Josh Ali, Isaiah Epps, Allen Dailey, and Akeem Hayes have all been praised by the coaching staff as major pieces of the offense moving forward. And with the defense accounting more for the passing game, it opens up the opportunity for Snell to find big numbers in the run game on fewer carries.
We have found a recipe that works for Wilson, and it'd certainly make sense to utilize it going forward.
On defense, we learned that while they are still one of the best in the nation, they're likely not one of the top-three units like we originally thought. Against a team layered with five-star talent and All-American candidates, the defense missed countless open tackles, left receivers open on costly downs, and missed opportunities to come up with stops. Most of all, they were outworked.
Josh Allen wasn't able to make any highlight-reel tackles for loss or forced fumbles, though he did manage to recover two fumbles. He had a solid game overall, but it wasn't the dominant presence we're used to, and it set the tone for the entire defense. The unit finished with just four tackles for loss and zero sacks, unable to make Jake Fromm uncomfortable in the pocket. Chris Westry and Darius West also struggled in coverage and in the tackling department, opening up some holes for Fromm in the passing game.
That being said, other defensive players were able to shine. Derrick Baity proved yet again he's one of the best corners in the nation and will be a high draft pick next spring. Mike Edwards, despite one costly missed tackle and missed coverage assignment, also had a solid game. Davonte Robinson also continued growing, finishing with nine total tackles, one TFL, and one QB hurry.
The Wildcats certainly deserve praise for such an outstanding year, but the gap between units was there. We saw some shining stars, but inconsistencies elsewhere. Against an elite unit like the Georgia Bulldogs, you have to be consistent across the board, and it showed in the form of Kentucky's largest allowed point total of the season.
It may not have looked great on the scoreboard, but as a whole, more good came from Kentucky's loss to Georgia than it may appear both this season and in the future.