Cats still have shot at .500 record
by Jamie H. Vaught
One-fourth of Kentucky’s 2013 football campaign is over. And the rebuilding Wildcats, coming off a respectable showing in last Saturday’s 27-13 setback to No. 7 U of L, now kick off their brutal SEC schedule, facing league powerhouses Florida, South Carolina and Alabama in three consecutive weekends.
That means UK’s record will likely be 1-5 at the halfway point of the season. But things get easier for the Cats in the second half of the campaign, schedule-wise.
If Kentucky is reasonably healthy, especially QB Maxwell Smith, and doesn’t get discouraged with its losses, it incredibly has a chance to finish with a .500 mark in SEC action.
Yes, you read it right — an even record of 4-4 against league foes.
For that to happen, the Cats will need to pull out victories against lower-tier, unranked conference schools — Mississippi State (at Starkville), Missouri (home), Vanderbilt (at Nashville) and Tennessee (home).
The last time UK came up with a .500 mark or better in SEC play was in 2006 when coach Rich Brooks guided a 8-5 club which went to the Music City Bowl and beat Clemson.
And Kentucky meets Alabama State in a non-conference matchup on Nov. 2 in Lexington.
With that in mind, it could — though unlikely — end up with a 6-6 mark, including four SEC victories, in winning five of the last six games with a possible bowl trip. (The setback during that span would likely be against Georgia in Athens on Nov. 23.)
That would be a stunning turnaround for the young Cats after a slow 1-5 start this year and a 2-10 worksheet last fall.
So there is hope in the Big Blue Nation as Kentucky’s last four SEC opponents are beatable on paper, but it still won’t be that easy.
Mississippi State, which posted an 8-5 mark last year, is coming off a disappointing loss to Auburn, 24-20, this past weekend. The 1-2 Bulldogs dropped to nationally-ranked Oklahoma State 21-3 in the season opener. Coach Dan Mullen and his MSU squad, though, have beaten the Cats four straight times in the series since he arrived at Starkville before the 2009 season.
Missouri is 2-0 but the Tigers haven’t played anybody yet. UM veteran coach Gary Pinkel, who has had some off-the-field issues, is under pressure to produce a winning campaign after posting a 5-7 mark last year.
By the way, Pinkel and Alabama’s Nick Saban were college teammates at Kent State.
The current edition of the Commodores is definitely better than the old, struggling Vandy teams from the past. Charismatic coach James Franklin has done a remarkable job in elevating Vanderbilt to respectable levels despite tough academic standards and playing in an aging stadium, which was first built in 1922. In addition, the 40,550-seat Vanderbilt Stadium is the smallest football venue in the SEC.
The Commodores barely lost to Ole Miss in the season opener by a score of 39-35. They are 0-2 in the SEC action, including a 10-point loss to South Carolina.
New coach Butch Jones and his Vols will be facing four ranked SEC teams — Florida (at Gainesville), Georgia (home), South Carolina (home) and Alabama (at Tuscaloosa) — in the next five games before taking a breather toward the end of the season.
Second-ranked Oregon was definitely too much for Tennessee to handle this past weekend as the Ducks dominated in a 59-14 blowout in Eugene. The Vols obviously have some growing up to do.
After his team’s loss to Louisville, UK’s Mark Stoops was disappointed but he was very pleased with his team’s effort.
Stoops said the Cats have made improvements since the season-opening setback to Western Kentucky.
“I think we’re quite a bit better,” said the rookie coach last Saturday. “We’re going to continue to make strides and move in the right direction.”
So can the Wildcats turn things around in late October and November, and be the new darlings of the SEC?
Well, in weatherman’s terms, the Wildcats have a 20 percent chance to make it happen. Or 30 percent if Maxwell Smith stays healthy.
Nevertheless, the forecast isn’t rosy, but there is a chance that Kentucky could make a case for a strong finish with a 6-6 mark, surpassing all preseason expectations.
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