We've taken a few days to let some perspective sink in. Now, here's an edition of the Cats Illustrated 3-2-1 following Kentucky's 28-27 loss to Florida.
As usual, the format is as follows: Three things we've learned, two things we're asking, one bold prediction.
WHAT WE'VE LEARNED
Kentucky's run defense is improved, but it still has a ways to go.
Florida isn't exactly a juggernaut on the ground. The Gators rushed for 11 yards on 27 carries against Michigan (0.41 yards per carry) and a more respectable 168 yards on 29 carries (5.79) against Tennessee. Their numbers against Kentucky (36 carries, 186 yards, 2 TD) were right in line with what they were able to do against UT. That was a big step backwards for Kentucky's rush defense after stifling their first three opponents on the ground.
The defensive line did not get the same kind of push they often got in the season's first three weeks. The linebackers didn't take great angles. And there were some tackles that were missed that simply shouldn't be missed.
There is no doubt that Kentucky's run defense is improved. One-third of the way through the 2017 season the numbers don't lie (3.13 yards per carry allowed, most notably). However, it's also true that many of the better rushing teams on Kentucky's schedule are still to come.
If you bought totally into the defensive line's transformation against three less-than-stellar opponents on the ground, I've got some beach side property in Kentucky to sell you. That defensive line is still young and relatively inexperienced. Then again, if you're still riding the fence and wondering if the bottom is going to fall out, you're probably being too pessimistic. The nose play really has been improved, the more experienced ends and tackles are playing like more experienced players, and the linebackers have been solid for the season.
Stephen Johnson is one of the SEC's better quarterbacks.
He's not going to get the publicity of a Shea Patterson at Ole Miss or a Nick Fitzgerald at Mississippi State, but there is no question that Stephen Johnson is playing like one of the SEC's better quarterbacks. His stat line is just never going to be all that sexy because Kentucky isn't going to air it out too much, but Johnson is showing that even in more obvious passing situations he's capable of picking apart a defense when given the time. Most impressive was his three touchdowns against zero interceptions against a Florida defense that had surrendered two scoring passes while picking off five balls against Michigan and Tennessee.
Johnson entered the week rated 10th in ESPN's Total QBR standings. After facing that talented Florida secondary, he's now ranked 9th in that category, which is a comprehensive measure of a quarterback's performance.
Considering that the offensive line's performance has been OK this season in pass protection (not great, good enough at times) and the wide receivers have only started to really come on more recently this year, that's quite an impressive stat.
The running backs are becoming more incorporated into the pass game and C.J. Conrad is making big plays almost every week. Those are two factors that can't be understated in explaining Johnson's success this season. But mostly he's just improved his accuracy and is making great decisions.
Kentucky can be competitive in every game still on the schedule.
That road game against Georgia later this year looks daunting but that has everything to do with Georgia and nothing to do with Kentucky. Even in a one-point losing effort against the Gators, and in spite of how bad 31 in a row probably feels to you, Kentucky has a chance to win every game the rest of the way. It's not likely that they finish 11-1, but the point is there isn't one game that appears unwinnable. Georgia would probably have to play an off game but the Bulldogs' 31-3 win against Mississippi State means that trip to Starkville doesn't look quite as daunting.
Even if Kentucky's defense finally started to show some cracks against the Gators, that 27-point performance (which could have been even more with better execution and fewer untimely penalties) against a talented UF defense bodes very well for an improved defense and a rapidly improving special teams unit.
The SEC looked very good the first week of the college football season but since then the league, and especially the East, doesn't look nearly as difficult.
WHAT WE'RE ASKING
How much more involved can Lynn Bowden and Sihiem King become in the offense?
Bowden had a major hand in three offensive plays for Kentucky against Florida. On the first, he patiently waited in the backfield after taking a Wildcat snap and then attacked the Gator defense, navigating a first down and nearly breaking a long touchdown run. On a second play he scampered for several more yards out of the Wildcat. Finally, he completed a long pass down inside the UF ten-yard line, showing off his arm talent which was evident in his high school years. He's still a freshman but he's obviously a dynamic talent and Kentucky could use more of that.
Speaking of dynamic talents, Sihiem King has never looked better than he's looked in recent weeks. After a slow start to the season against USM, King has played as hard as arguably any player on the offense, running with a full head of steam and even blowing past ultra-talented Florida defensive players. He's picking up big gainers once he gets past the line of scrimmage and, again, Kentucky needs that kind of explosiveness on the field. He also makes Kentucky's passing game more formidable.
Are UK's game management and organizational blunders something that place a real cap on what the program will be capable of?
No one is calling for Mark Stoops to be fired. No one that's serious, that is. He's elevated the talent to the point where Kentucky can be competitive with almost every team on the schedule.
But a fairer question is this: In Year 5, are the kinds of organizational and game management blunders that we've seen a real ceiling on what the program is capable of? Would Missouri have ever won two SEC East championships if the Tigers were prone to the kinds of errors that plagued Kentucky? And that's basically the blueprint for what Kentucky fans hope to accomplish under Mark Stoops.
Fortunately, Kentucky doesn't have to be perfect to be a really good team in the East. There's no Alabama, there are no juggernauts year in and year out. But while the talent level has been raised the competitiveness improved, this is a legitimate question that time will prove one way or the other.
Kentucky comes out flat against Eastern Michigan and makes it harder than it should be.
That said, it's completely understandable if a team were to come out flat after the kind of heartbreaking loss it suffered against Florida. Rallying a team for a game against a mid-major opponent that nobody expects to beat you has to be one of the tougher coaching jobs Mark Stoops is going to have in quite a while. This bold prediction won't go so far as to call for an Eastern Michigan win, but don't be surprised if it's ugly enough that there's some concern.