Rowland: 10 Monday morning thoughts on UK football

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

What a weekend. What a time for Kentucky's football program.

With a road win in the rear view mirror, Kentucky welcomes a familiar foe and the challenging of toppling college football's most constant historical trend on Saturday.

Here are 10 thoughts on Kentucky football to help you start your Monday morning.



I love this Kentucky team's swagger and the gigantic chip on everyone's shoulders.

It starts at the top. Mark Stoops basically went full blown Baker Mayfield in Williams-Brice Stadium after Kentucky beat South Carolina. No, it wasn't enough for Kentucky to win its fourth straight in the series. Stoops said point blank that everyone had been talking about South Carolina for months. "Now what?" seemed to the point.

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From Stephen Johnson's tongue hanging out of his mouth to the players' celebration on the field, to the dust up over the non-handshake and who was responsible, this Kentucky team has an edge and is still carrying that "us against the world" mentality that served it well in the Louisville game and at the end of last season. Only now they've got more teeth to back up any talk.

It almost goes without saying at this point but Mark Stoops is doing a really remarkable job at Kentucky.

I don't even care if the Cats finish 10-2 or if the bottom falls out completely and they don't win another game. Just go back and watch the game from Saturday night and allow yourself to marvel at the size, speed and depth of a Kentucky football team. It's more impressive on every level than it's ever been since I've been following Kentucky football (and for a still-young 32 year old, that's a long time).

Look, there in the secondary. Giants at cornerback. Not just the starters, but JUCO transfer Lonnie Johnson. They look like hulking NFL receivers just by the eye test. Then there's Eli Brown filling in for Jordan Jones, not missing a beat. And, oh, there's Boogie Watson filling in for Eli Brown, not missing a beat. And what about that defensive line, the one with so many questions, allowing a cool 57 yards per game on the ground through three?

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Kentucky's football program is just not supposed to have this much size, speed and depth. But it does. I seriously doubt there is one coach Kentucky could conceivably land who could produce the kind of roster Mark Stoops has built.


But just as impressive as the talent and depth is the actual leadership and football character of this team.

If it seems like three games is premature for a statement like that, well, whatever.

Who are this team's leaders? You could point to Johnson, Courtney Love, Greg Hart, Nick Haynes, Mike Edwards or a host of others. There are lots of guys who seem to be captain material. But what's really impressive is the absence of the "bad apple" corner that can have a slow but serious corrosive effect. We still don't know how this team will respond when things get really bad (and yes, at some point they'll get worse than Deebo Samuel scoring on the first play and following that with an interception), but we know how they respond when things look pretty darn bad.

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It's amazing to think that, not too many football games ago, there was a very real expectation that Kentucky would fold at the first sign of adversity. Remember all those late first half and second half collapses running all the way up to the Southern Miss game (and bleeding into the Florida game) last year? It feels like a long time ago, doesn't it? The difference is all about leadership.

There's an atmosphere of accountability in Kentucky's locker room and on Kentucky's sideline, wherein players are pushing one another on and off the field and tolerating less loafing and mediocrity. That much is clear and a lot of people would tell you that. It just took some time for Mark Stoops to recycle the roster enough, and for those young and talented recruits to forge that character through many losses and much difficulty.

Kentucky is 34th in the AP Poll and 33rd in the Coaches Poll if you let your eyes drift down below the actual rankings into the "others receiving votes" category.

Were the Cats slighted?

I don't think so. If Kentucky beats Florida and moves to 4-0 then I believe they would debut in the 20-25 range in both polls, depending on what happened to teams ranked ahead of them. That would give them a nice chance to climb into the Top 15 with EMU and Missouri after that.

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But the polls are still flawed. South Carolina was 27th in the AP as a 2-0 team going into Saturday night. Kentucky's now 3-0, having beaten South Carolina on the road and the Cats are now a solid five to seven spots lower than the Gamecocks were. If anything that's an admission on the part of voters (though really a non-admission because this is a collective effort) that South Carolina should not have been 27th.

And that brings me to...


Yes, South Carolina was overrated.

I rode the fence on this a little bit. Although I did pick Kentucky to win the game 24-21, I did talk Jake Bentley up quite a bit. I don't regret talking Deebo Samuel up ... Nope, all the respect in the world to that guy. But I thought South Carolina was better than the team they showed to be on Saturday night.

That does not mean I'm withholding any credit from Kentucky. If you think I am then I challenge you to read any of my other post-game writing over the past 24-plus hours.

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We just don't know how good NC State really is and we now know that Missouri is terrible.

Kentucky faces No. 20 Florida next and I don't think the Gators are actually one of the 20 best teams in the country. However, they do have a lot of talent and that makes them very dangerous.

Speaking of rankings, here's what my Top 25 would look like if I had a vote

1. Clemson
2. Oklahoma
3. Alabama
4. Penn State
5. Oklahoma State
6. USC
7. Wisconsin
8. Michigan
9. TCU
10. Washington
11. Mississippi State
12. Florida State
13. Georgia
14. Virginia Tech
15. Washington State
16. Miami
17. Oregon
18. Ohio State
19. Auburn
20. Minnesota
21. Utah
22. Vanderbilt
23. Duke
24. San Diego State
25. Kentucky

However, I'd throw in an asterisk or two. I predicted Washington to win the Pac-12 before the season and although I have USC ahead of Washington now, that's based on the strength of their wins against Stanford and a Texas team that's better than its record. I still think Washington is more likely to win the conference.

It's impossible not to appear to contradict yourself on these lists, and that shows up when I rank Florida State (which has accomplished nothing) ahead of more accomplished teams. But that's just because I'm more convinced that the Seminole defense will ultimately make them better than Virginia Tech, Miami and others, than I'm willing to put stock in those other teams' wins.


And nobody is an SEC power ranking pollster, but if I had that job here's how I'd rank the Cats' league.

1. Alabama
2. Georgia
3. Mississippi State
4. Auburn
5. Vanderbilt
6. Kentucky
7. Florida
8. LSU
9. Tennessee
10. Arkansas
11. Ole Miss
12. South Carolina
13. Texas A&M
14. Missouri

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After the first week of the college football season it looked like the SEC was on its way back. Alabama handled Florida State, Tennessee inched past Georgia Tech, South Carolina beat NC State and the league avoided embarrassing losses.

Since then Georgia has defeated Notre Dame on the road and Vanderbilt has been impressive, knocking off ranked Kansas State.

But the top of the league after Alabama is just not that strong. The bottom is better than you'll find in most other leagues (with the exception of Missouri, which will be looking for a new coach and possibly as soon as the end of this season).

Kentucky opens as a four-point underdog against Florida. That line is understandable. Four-point favorites win roughly 65-percent of the time, and if you're riding a 30-year losing streak against a team those odds are pretty good. Yes, the Gators are ranked No. 20, and yes, there's history. But the Gators have looked downright bad on offense so far (21.5 PPG, 3.2 rush YPC, less than 200 pass YPG, 33.3% third down conversions).

All that said, Florida is not going to be an easy game. The time to buy Kentucky low with Vegas is over. It ended when the Cats went up 20-6 on the road against a South Carolina team that had been hyped beyond their real worth.

Florida's a four-point favorite because of the following statistics: Five interceptions, a 107 passer rating allowed, 50.1 yards per punt and the insane number of four star recruits on their roster.

As worrisome Florida's speed always is, and there is the possibility that UF's offense shows improvement, the big question is how Kentucky attacks that Gator defense.

It's not an easy question. In spite of big personnel losses from a year ago it appears that Florida once again has one of the league's best defensive teams.

However, through games against Michigan and Tennessee the Gators are surrendering 4.85 yards per carry. Those two opponents aren't chopped liver, but that's at least one promising sign for Kentucky heading into Saturday.

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Kentucky will have to commit to the run against Florida. Benny Snell averaged less than 4 yards per carry against South Carolina but still had a very successful 32-carry game because he helped move the chains and that commitment to the run opened up the passing game over time. It's unlikely that Kentucky will generate a lot of big plays against that stout Gator defense, so it will have to be a ball control game that Kentucky wins with solid execution, good defense and the kind of special teams performance we saw in Weeks 1 or 3.

Fortunately, Kentucky's staff has been bolstered by a couple of apparently very solid additions.

The special teams have been good for two out of three weeks and against South Carolina, when they needed to be really good, they were really good. The unit has made adjustments, game planned and executed well, and soundly, more often than not. That's a credit to Dean Hood, whose linebackers have also performed at a high level.

And how about Derrick LeBlanc? It's safe to say he arrived on Stoops' staff with less fanfare than a lot of the other coaches Kentucky has brought on in recent years, but has any position group seen the kind of improvement in short order that the defensive line has, going from the SEC's worst front to one that looks surprisingly capable and well coached?

Just the latest reminder that the hype doesn't always match up with reality.


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