Kentucky lost its first game of the season, 30-13, at Georgia on Saturday. The Wildcats fell to 6-1 overall and will have a week to recuperate before traveling to Mississippi State on Oct. 23.
Let’s examine what Saturday’s result means beyond the scoreboard.
That the Wildcats lost on Saturday won’t shock many across the country, or within their fan base, but the team went to Athens expecting to compete well enough to give itself an opportunity to win. It didn’t, and how it responds to that will be transformative to how this season is viewed.
The off week provides an extra week to rehab two injured starters who didn’t play at Georgia — receiver Josh Ali and nose tackle Marquan McCall — and nurse any bruises and other lingering ailments accrued by other players over the course of the first seven games.
Whether the timing of the bye is more positive or negative ultimately will depend on the outcome of Kentucky’s next game. Does a week off, after a loss viewed by millions across the country, distort the team’s focus? Will that disappointment lead to a hangover, as it did in 2018 when UK traveled to Tennessee and got rocked? Or do the Wildcats wipe the blood of their chin and regroup with authority?
The reset button has been pushed, and Kentucky can do a lot with its new lives. It has to maintain the attention to detail that got it to 6-0, though, to capitalize.
The long-term goal for Kentucky has been to be good enough to qualify for the Southeastern Conference championship game. The teams it’s had that had a legitimate chance to do that — 2018 and this one — were both thwarted by the Bulldogs, who more or less are Kentucky, just with players who were more highly rated coming out of high school.
Defeating Georgia isn’t an impossible mission for Kentucky, but it remains the most difficult one so far for Stoops’ staff to complete. The head coach is now 0-9 in his meetings with the Bulldogs, and the program hasn’t defeated them since 2009, Rich Brooks’ last season in charge. That has to change.
Can it? This season should make it a little easier in the future if the Wildcats leverage their enhanced national exposure into some higher-level prospects than its accustomed to getting. It also ought to give them one heck of a pitch to transfers seeking new homes this offseason. “Look what we did without you! You’re the missing piece to us taking down the Bulldogs.” It’s hard to look out with rose-colored glasses coming off one’s first loss, but Kentucky certainly can spin the outcome in its favor.
Saturday’s loss shouldn’t harm UK’s aspirations for a big-time bowl as long as it can finish the season with 10 or 11 wins. The latter, especially, would make it tough for the Cats to be left out of the New Year’s Six tango.
Alabama losing to Texas A&M probably made it harder for Kentucky to make the Sugar Bowl. Whether that happens or not could come down to the Crimson Tide defeating an unbeaten Georgia team in the SEC Championship Game; that scenario, assuming ‘Bama has only one loss, would probably put both it and the Bulldogs into the College Football Playoff foursome, along with whoever wins the Big Ten and either Oklahoma or Cincinnati.
The Fiesta and Peach Bowls are each scheduled to take two at-large teams, based on how teams finish in the final CFP rankings. Either of those is more likely to be Kentucky’s destination if Alabama or Georgia doesn’t qualify for the playoff (also, again, assuming UK wins out).