By LARRY VAUGHT
Just a week ago Kentucky had a chance to play in the Southeastern Conference championship game, finish in the top 10 and earn a major, major bowl bid.
Then Georgia burst the SEC title game bubble and Saturday Tennessee just devastated Kentucky with a 24-7 win where the Vols just dominated UK.
The Cats are still 7-3, but a top 10 ranking is now gone along with a high level bowl bid. A 9-3 finish could still get UK to the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. That’s not bad but a week ago so much more was possible.
However, UK was thoroughly outplayed by the Vols. Yes, the same Vols who had 20 yards rushing a week earlier in a 14-3 win over Charlotte had 215 yards rushing on UK a week after Georgia gashed the UK run defense. Tennessee finished with 412 yards and had seven plays of 20 or more yards. Kentucky had 262 yards — and most came after Tennessee had a 24-0 lead. Kentucky had two plays of 20 yards and Benny Snell ran 20 times for 81 yards.
“It wasn’t good enough. Obviously I didn’t have the team prepared to play,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said after the game.
No arguing the it “wasn’t good enough.” It was awful.
Whether he had the team prepared to play or not, I don’t know. Kentucky’s offensive line had trouble sustaining blocks and opening holes. Receivers dropped some balls. Quarterback Terry Wilson missed some throws and was slow to make others. Even running back Benny Snell seemed to miss a whole or two. On defense, Kentucky missed tackles for the second straight week.
But what KILLED the Cats was giving up a touchdown pass on the final play of the first half. And the Vols made it look easy as no UK defender really was in the way of the Hail Mary toss that put the lead at 17-0 — an insurmountable margin for an offense that has been as stagnant as UK’s in recent weeks.
“That was a punch in the gut,” Stoops said.
But not the only punch a once reliable defense took as Tennessee’s playmakers were just better than UK’s defenders. Maybe the UK defense is just wore down physically and mentally from carrying this team most of the season. Maybe it was still thinking about Georgia. Maybe Tennessee — which did win at Auburn two weeks ago — is just better than we think.
“They did a nice job. We were a bit slow in our reactions,” Stoops said.
Bit slow? Try way slow way too often.
Stoops again hinted there might be changes made on offense. Of course, he’s said that before and nothing has really changed the last four games. Teams have learned how to contain Snell and when that happens, UK has no answer to make teams pay for loading up to stop Snell.
“Cats look totally out of sync. Need to get a spark somewhere,” former UK coach Rich Brooks tweeted during the first half.
He could have retweeted it again in the third quarter … and again in the fourth quarter. Probably could every day this week. Kentucky crossed midfield seven times against Tennessee when it did not score a single point. That’s not easy to do.
This team needs to regroup and regain its swagger. The good news is that UK has Middle Tennessee and Louisville left. Middle Tennessee should not be able to beat UK and Louisville is God-awful. The Cardinals can’t stop anybody and unless UK fails to show up, it can still finish 9-3 and get a chance for a 10th win in a bowl game better than anyone realistically expected when the season started.
But something has happened to this team. There was arguing on the sideline at Texas A&M. Players were shouting at Missouri. It’s not a happy team, and shouldn’t be after this butt-whipping.
Or maybe we should have known this was coming.
In the last five years, Kentucky is 22-8 in the first half of the season and 9-21 in the second half counting two bowl losses. That’s a disturbing trend that has kicked in again this year and has ruined what was just a festive atmosphere and outlook just a few days ago before UK played Georgia.