Working title for Kentucky football 2021: The Season of Living Dangerously.
Eyes scan the national turnover margin rankings. There they are, our Kentucky Wildcats, one stop from the bottom, No. 129 out of 130 teams playing FBS football. (Thank heavens for Wisconsin.) Now eyes scan the current SEC East standings. There they are, our Kentucky Wildcats, at the top of the heap, tied for first place with Georgia, 4-0 overall, 2-0 in the conference.
What kind of magic trick is that?
Now eyes scan to the upcoming teams on the UK schedule calendar. Uh-oh. Home games with Florida and LSU are followed by road trips to Georgia and Mississippi State. Eyes are now in need of rubbing.
It’s safe to say what Kentucky survived in winning its first four games won’t abide in the next four. The mistakes the Cats made against Louisiana Monroe, Missouri, Chattanooga and South Carolina will prove deadly against the likes of the Gators, Tigers and Bulldogs times two. Especially those Georgia Bulldogs. (Poor Vanderbilt.)
Alternate working title for Kentucky football 2021: Team Turnover.
The Cats have turned it over 11 times through four games. Only Florida State can match such generosity. And FSU is 0-4. Worse, Kentucky has but two takeaways. Do the math and the program that led the SEC in 2020 turnover margin is now minus-9 for 2021.
Saturday at South Carolina, the Wildcats lost the turnover battle 3-0, but managed to escape with a 16-10 victory. UK’s defense made it so, holding the home team to 216 total yards and just three conversions out of 15 third- or fourth-down attempts. Game’s key stat: New South Carolina coach Shane Beamer rolled the dice three times on fourth down. He came up empty on all three.
Two came in the fourth quarter. Both came after UK’s Josh Ali fumbled the ball back to the Gamecocks. First series, fourth-and-5 from the Kentucky 25-yard line, UK’s defense forced an incompletion. Second series, fourth-and-3 from the Kentucky 40, UK’s defense forced another incompletion.
“When there’s sudden change, we think ‘Good,’” said Kentucky linebacker DeAndre Square, the star of stars for the winners with eight tackles, including stops on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 — thanks to some help from his friend and nose tackle Marquan McCall — on a key second quarter series.
“Very good victory,” Stoops said afterward.
Any SEC victory is a good victory. Stoops now has 26, the most of any coach in program history, topping Fran Curci’s 25. And any SEC road victory is an especially good victory.
As for the turnovers, maybe they even out, maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s bad luck, maybe it’s not. Maybe they’re random, maybe they persist as a problem. New offensive coordinator Liam Coen has shown he knows how to move the ball, if his players can hang on to it.
Meanwhile, good defense travels. The Cats proved that again Saturday. The men of Brad White now rank ninth nationally in total defense, allowing just 251.8 yards per game. Meanwhile, Florida ranks ninth nationally in total offense, averaging 540.8 yards per game. Something’s gotta give.
The Gators are 3-1. Two weeks ago, Dan Mullen’s team spotted No. 1 Alabama a 21-3 lead before putting a mild scare in Nick Saban only to lose 31-29. Saturday, the Gators outscored Tennessee 21-0 in the second half of a 38-14 romp in The Swamp. Florida quarterback Emory Jones completed 21 of 27 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns, while also rushing 15 times for 144 yards. Dual-threat quarterbacks have traditionally caused UK migraines.
Have we mentioned that Kentucky hasn’t beaten Florida in Lexington since 1986?
Said Stoops, “We’re excited about the next opportunity.”
After all, 4-0 is 4-0. This is just the second time since 1977 that UK has started its SEC season 2-0. The 10-3 team of 2018 also began 2-0. So don’t mess with happy. Kentucky is right where it wanted to be through the first third of the season, imperfect but unbeaten, heading into the toughest four-game stretch of the season.
This Season of Living Dangerously.