Rowland: This is Kentucky football's biggest game since...?

Justin Rowland, Publisher
Cats Illustrated

We're all prone to hyperbole and prisoner of the moment judgments.

But almost everyone believes Saturday's game against the Gators is enormous for Kentucky's football program. With good reason.

When's the last time Kentucky played a football game with stakes this high and such potential for a big impact?

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In my judgment the answer to this question - "When's the last time Kentucky football played a game this big?" - is more clear cut than you might imagine.

The answer is October 20, 2007.

That game was also against the Gators.

College Gameday was in town. Kentucky was ranked No. 7 in one poll. The Cats had just defeated No. 1 LSU the previous week. Florida, ranked No. 17, would have their worst season of the Tim Tebow era that season, but that Gator team, as all Gator teams are, was fast, physical and very talented.

Kentucky fans can only hope the outcome of Saturday's game is different.

Tebow was just too much that day. Mr. All-Everything scored five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing) and the Gators outscored Kentucky 45-37. Andre Woodson put up outstanding numbers and Kentucky's offense was a worthy unit at Commonwealth Stadium that day, but the Cats simply could not slow Tebow down. At all.

That was the biggest game for Kentucky's football program since, arguably, the late 1970's, when Kentucky shared its last SEC championship. Had Kentucky won that game they would have been 7-1 going into a home game against Mississippi State. Everyone remembers that clunker against the Bulldogs, but might a win over the Gators have led to another adrenaline-fueled win against a scrappy but less than overwhelming Mississippi State team? Sluggish ruled that day.

No, Kentucky has not played a bigger game than the one they'll play Saturday since 2007.

What have the program's biggest games been? And remember, here I'm not writing exclusively in terms of, "Look how big this turned out." I'm weighing, quite heavily, the high stakes of each game before the game. So for example, that heartbreaking 36-30 ("delay of game!") loss to Florida ... Had Kentucky won that game, they might have started the season 6-0. Alas, the season ended without a bowl. But the point being, I'm not listing that game yet because at the time Kentucky was a 2-10 team turned 2-0 and there just wasn't quite the same level of local, conference or national hype for the game.

What about October 9, 2010?

No. 8 Auburn, led by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton - the team that would go on to win the national championship - downed Kentucky, then 3-2, 37-34 in a game that would have surely won the program immense national respect and publicity had the outcome been different. But that Kentucky team was still only 3-2 going into that game, and we know from hindsight that the program was on a downwards trajectory in the grand scheme.

What about October 25, 2014?

No. 1 Mississippi State (how often do we get to say that?) traveled to Commonwealth with a quarterback who has proved himself to be better than absolutely anyone imagined. Kentucky was 5-2 on the season, but this week's game is bigger because that Wildcat team had just been destroyed 41-3 at LSU.

What about November 29, 2014?

Had Kentucky defeated Louisville (the Cardinals won this game 44-40 in Commonwealth Stadium), Mark Stoops would have achieved bowl eligibility in his second season in Lexington. That might have expedited their climb, but that team was already floundering for several weeks before the UofL game. And this year's team has the potential to finish a good deal better than 6-6.

What about October 15, 2015?

Auburn again. Kentucky, then 4-2 (and more importantly 2-1 in the SEC), had another chance to beat a quality Auburn team, though not one the caliber of the 2010 squad. Auburn's offensive line won the day and the Tigers the game, 30-27, although late blunders cost Kentucky a chance to move to 3-1 in the SEC. But again, hindsight analysis tells us that "finishing" was just a problem for Kentucky then, in that game and later games that year.

Now the biggie: What about last year's Louisville game?

Kentucky already had bowl eligibility secured. After the fact, everyone can now recognize the enormous significance (for Mark Stoops and by extension for Kentucky's program) of the Cats winning the biggest upset of the 2016 college football season. Beating Lamar Jackson, securing Stoops' standing in Lexington, improving their spot in the bowl pecking order, closing strong with Florida recruits, etc. But going into that game Kentucky was still a 6-5 team with no chance of winning the SEC's Eastern division, and as important as Kentucky-Louisville is to the fans, SEC games are where it really counts.

So, yes, Saturday's game against Florida is the biggest game for Kentucky's football program since Tim Tebow's appearance at Commonwealth Stadium since 2007. Had Kentucky won that game the Cats would have climbed into the Top 5 of the national rankings. They would have been the story of the college football season halfway through it, having won the College Gameday contest of the week. And their fortunes for the rest of 2007 might have been different. That was Kentucky's biggest football game since 1977.

But this is the biggest game since.

If Kentucky beats Florida the streak is over. Florida recruits, and recruits from everywhere else, will take more notice than ever. Fans will jump back on board and more sellouts will be coming. And the Cats will be in the driver's seat, probably with Georgia, for a chance to represent the East in Atlanta.

Most significantly, this is the first time, probably since the late 1970's, that Kentucky's football program has the blend of All-SEC caliber talent and SEC caliber depth to actually turn a huge streak-ending win into something much bigger over the long haul.

The sun will still rise and set all the same either way, and championships might not follow. But, Kentucky fans, enjoy Saturday night. Because these opportunities, these stages, don't come around too often.


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