By LARRY VAUGHT
I’m not sure anybody could have predicted that Kentucky would be ninth in the first college football rankings released Tuesday night and in position with a win over Georgia Saturday not only to claim the top spot in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division but also a potential spot in the college football playoffs.
But I’m also not sure why so many people were wondering going into the season if Kentucky could even win six games. The Cats returned 17 starters off a team that won seven games and had another solid recruiting class. It was like many thought UK couldn’t get better.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was not one of them. Granted, his team plays at UK Saturday but I don’t think he was throwing false praise at UK this week.
“When you talk to the other coaches, which we all talk to each other week to week, everybody talks about Kentucky’s group of seniors. They’ve got either 12 or 13 starters, however you want to look at it, which is the most starters of any team in the SEC,” Smart said.
Again, a reason to understand UK’s success.
“Their whole defense, I think it’s seven or eight defensive players (are seniors), seems like they’ve been playing for four years. You look back at the tape two years ago when we were up there playing, all those guys are still there,” Smart said remembering that 2016 when Georgia needed a game-winning field goal. “They’re really good football players. Their back end and linebackers, their defensive coordinator, Coach (Matt) House, is doing an incredible job.”
Kentucky’s defense is tied for first with Clemson nationally in scoring defense.
“They’ve got a really good football program, a very physical football program, one that in the last two years each time we played them our players said, ‘That was one of the most physical games we had to play, Coach.’ They are tough and they are physical,” Smart said.
That might be Kentucky coach Mark Stoops ready to crowd surf again. He prides himself on toughness and defense. He has that this year along with a stud running back in Benny Snell.
“They do a tremendous job, and we’ve got a lot of improving to do to be able to complement and to match up with these guys because they have a really good football team. And we’re excited for the opportunity to go up there and play,” Smart said.
He might be exaggerating a bit, but just to have Smart say that about Kentucky going into a SEC East showdown is great to hear and read.
“Obviously there’s a lot is at stake. I think our kids and players understand that,” Smart said.
So do Kentucky players and fans.