By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
It’s a proven fact. The Mark Stoops-coached Kentucky football program historically struggles in opening games. It doesn’t matter if they are playing at home or on the road.
Starting all the way back in 2013, Mark Stoops first season at Kentucky, when Kentucky lost to Western Kentucky in the opener and then on through the Southern Mississippi years until last season’s 35-20 win over what would end up being a 1-11 Central Michigan team, Kentucky has not always played well in the first game of the season. Yep, no doubt about it, Kentucky football struggles in season openers.
So let’s say they struggle this year against what should be a very capable Toledo team. Let’s say they win by less than a touchdown. Does that mean UK will have a less than stellar team this year as most analysts are predicting?
Not necessarily. Looking at the rest of the season’s performance after the Cats struggled in the season opener doesn’t show any kind of trend. Take 2013 for example. UK lost to WKU in the opener and went on to have a dismal 2-10 season. But the next season, 2014, they beat UT-Martin 59-14 but only won five games and only two in the SEC.
Last season Kentucky played Central Michigan in a season opener that included four turnovers by the Cats, saw Gunnar Hoak come off the bench to throw the go-ahead touchdown pass that put UK ahead for good with :14 to go in the second quarter. This was against a Central Michigan team that finished the season 1-11 and went on to lose the second week of the season to Kansas 31-7. That would be the Kansas team that was a doormat in the Big 12, finishing 3-9 overall and 1-8 in their conference.
As we all know after that clunker of a game against Central Michigan to open the season, Kentucky went on to play exceptional football and finish with their best record in 41 years.
So what does the opening game result say about how the Wildcats will perform for the rest of the season? Based on past results of Stoops-coached teams, absolutely nothing. It seems that opening day for Kentucky Football is always going to be an adventure. With that being said the goal for UK this year against Toledo should be to win the game in any fashion possible, just win, and move on to week two of the schedule.
Whether Kentucky wins by a last-second field goal or scores three touchdowns in the first quarter and wins going away doesn’t seem to set the direction of the season. The goal is to win. Avoid losing to what will be a very competitive Mid-America Conference team, pack up the equipment and get ready to hit the practice field on Monday to begin correcting mistakes.
And I’m sure there will be plenty, mistakes that is. There always are. But they are always correctable. Well, all of them except one. Losing the game would be a critical mistake that couldn’t be corrected, only compensated for by beating a team later on in the year that no one expected.
So as you watch the Wildcats play Saturday remember that the margin of victory (if there is one) doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a high scoring or low scoring affair doesn’t matter and who ends up being the star player doesn’t matter. What matters is winning the game. Each week. All season long.
And that is a trend that would be a very good predictor for the outcome of the season.