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KENTUCKY’S 2018 CATS MUST POUNCE QUICKLY

Benny Snell

This is the age of rain.

To explain that peculiar and cryptic phrase, this is the age in which long dry spells -- crippling sports droughts -- are ending.

The Philadelphia Eagles won a Super Bowl, giving the City of Brotherly Love its first NFL title in nearly 60 years.

The Houston Astros won their first World Series.

Cleveland won its first major professional sports title since 1964 when LeBron James carried the Cavaliers to the 2016 NBA championship.

Right now, the Washington Capitals are moving ever closer to a first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years, in pursuit of their first-ever Stanley Cup title. The Winnipeg Jets are looking for their first Cup, which would be the first by a Canadian team since 1993.

The Kansas City Royals won the 2015 World Series, their first in 30 years.

The Seattle Seahawks, born in 1976, won Super Bowl 48, a mere four years ago, giving Seattle its first NFL title and first major pro sports championship since 1979.

At the very start of this decade, the Texas Rangers made their first-ever World Series in 2010. Given that the Rangers came from a second iteration of the Washington Senators which was born in 1961 (the first one moved to Minnesota and became the Twins), it took the Rangers exactly 50 seasons to make the Fall Classic. They didn't win, but they made it.

Then, of course, the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year championship drought by beating the almost-as-starved Cleveland Indians in the 2016 World Series. The Cubs won their first World Series since 1908.





Ending droughts is the fashionable thing to do in sports these days. If the 2018 Kentucky Wildcats want to remove the shackles of oppression and misery -- if this program wants to take a big step forward in the SEC and show that it has a higher ceiling and not just a higher floor -- it has to get to work immediately rather than wait for the roster to jell over the course of three months.

The situation facing Kentucky football is not that different from the one facing the team we focused on last week, the Vanderbilt Commodores. Mark Stoops is not in trouble to the same extent Derek Mason is. Mason's seat is much hotter. However, in Lexington -- as is the case in Nashville -- questions persist about a veteran coach several years into his tenure, all while other struggling programs in the SEC are shaking things up with coaching hires which appear, on the surface, to be upgrades. It is true that making third- or fourth-tier bowl games is, compared to much of Kentucky's football history (not all of it, as Bear Bryant could tell you, but much of it), a relative improvement. Any bowl game is a good problem to have for Kentucky. Such a feat hasn't always been counted on.

Yet, in the cutthroat world of the SEC, should a 7-6 season be the height of a program's aspirations? It is true that with Georgia and Florida and Tennessee all in the SEC East, Big Blue Football cannot expect to be a nine- or 10-win team every year, or even most years. However, when the timing is right, the non-blueblood SEC East football programs (Missouri showed this in 2013 and 2014) expect to be able to pounce on an opportunity when it emerges.

Kentucky -- let's shut down this idea right now -- will not get past Georgia to win the SEC East. That's not happening under any circumstance. The window for winning the East briefly came open when Kirby Smart was still getting organized in Athens, but that moment seems to have passed. That's one reason Stoops is not fully comfortable in his position in Lexington.

However, as the 2018 season approaches, Kentucky can convince itself that it might be able to hit that nine-win target. Moreover, it might be able to convince itself that if it can play its best football of the season in September, one of the big droughts in SEC and college football can end.




One of the delicious aspects of college football -- not always pervasive in the sport, but regularly in evidence -- is the early-season pressure-cooker game. Most teams play cupcakes in Week 1 or Week 2, but conference games or showcase non-conference clashes so early in the season immediately ratchet up the level of intrigue in a college football campaign. The mystery surrounding two teams in a game of great importance gives texture to a season. The big game played just before or just after Labor Day stands in contrast to the Week 10 games between two teams which have settled into their identities. College football excellence -- becoming that 10-win team every now and then, for the Kentuckys of the world -- requires the ability to win a significant game in early September as well as late October or on Thanksgiving weekend.

This year, Kentucky's Week 2 opponent is the team which should have lost to the Wildcats last year... but once again slipped through UK's claws.

The Florida Gators benefited from Big Blue breakdowns on defense. Absent-minded anxiety enabled Florida to steal a win in the commonwealth and remain unbeaten against UK since 1986. Kentucky recently ended its Tennessee drought, but now Florida is the hex which needs to be expunged -- not only for its own sake, but to give UK the kind of victory which can turn a seven-win season into a 9-3 portfolio with a chance for win No. 10 in a bowl. Though Kentucky must replace Stephen Johnson with a new quarterback, the Cats have to find a way to come together sooner rather than later if they want to bust up the Florida hammer-lock grip on this series.

What is true for Florida is true of the two other SEC teams UK will face in the first half of its 2018 schedule. The Gators have a first-year coach -- maybe a good one, maybe even a great one, but still a man who must get used to his personnel and could very reasonably experience growing pains as a result. It took Kirby Smart one season to adjust at Georgia. It would not rate as a surprise if Dan Mullen at UF, Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State, and Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M all endured bumpy 2018 rides.




Kentucky plays all three teams before the second week of October. The Cats might be a work in progress, but so are the other teams located in the first half of their 2018 SEC schedule. When one remembers that UK won in South Carolina last season -- at a point in time before the Gamecocks adjusted to the loss of Deebo Samuel -- the idea that the Cats can win a big road game in September becomes more credible, not less.

It is true that history -- over a longer period of time -- tells us not to expect too much from Kentucky. However, if this program wants to reach a higher plateau and show that it is capable of more than just 7-6 seasons, this is a good year to do so... not in terms of UK's personnel, but in terms of other SEC opponents being in a pronounced state of flux.

Cats have to pounce to get what they want. That moment to pounce will come early for Big Blue in the 2018 college football season.


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