Just like all of 2020, this Kentucky football season has been a rollercoaster of emotions. We’ve experienced the good (hammering archrival Tennessee), the bad (an overtime loss to Ole Miss), the ugly (blowout losses to Alabama and Florida), and the devastating (the passing of John Schlarman and illness of Chris Oats).
Depending on the week, I have finished watching a Kentucky football game feeling depressed, angry, optimistic, flabbergasted, overjoyed, confused, and disheartened. For every 1 step forward, it seemed there were always 2 steps back. So, with all of these mixed emotions we have experienced as a fanbase this season, the question remains: How do we remember this season overall?
Should we be angry and say that a 4-6 record is unacceptable, or accept it because this was the most difficult schedule we’ve ever faced? Should we be disappointed that the team seemed to absolutely quit during blowout losses, or accept it because these are kids trying to play through a pandemic and the loss of one of their coaches? Should we be extremely critical of the coaching staff and demand that changes be made, or accept that they have never been through anything like this either? I honestly don’t know, and have a feeling that many in the BBN don’t know either. So let’s have a little therapy session together. Pull up a seat, grab a glass of bourbon, and let’s talk these issues out.
Should we be angry and say that a 4-6 record is unacceptable? If there is one emotion I think we can all agree upon about this season, it’s disappointment. When the schedule was released, there was legitimate optimism for an 8-2 season, but most predictions were somewhere around 7-3 or 6-4, and a sense that anything under 5 wins would be disappointing. Personally, I thought 5 wins was a worst-case scenario for this team. You have to go all the way back to 2015 (which seems like an eternity ago right now), to find the last time Kentucky didn’t have a winning record (Stoops finished 5-7 that year). After seeing the last 4 seasons end with 7, 7, 10, and 8 wins respectively, I felt as a program that we were beyond sub .500 seasons and certainly feel it is unacceptable for a team with as much talent as this one to not have a winning record.
Should we accept a 4-6 record because this was the most difficult schedule UK has ever faced? In hindsight, predictions of 7 or 8 wins seem a little foolish. Just take a look at the current standings for the College Football Playoffs: #1 Alabama, #6 Florida, #8 Georgia (which by chance made up 3 of our previous 4 games). You can’t blame Mark Stoops for losing to top-10 teams, and Kentucky just isn’t at the level yet to go for 7-for-7 against other SEC opponents. As we learned the first two weeks of the season in heartbreaking losses to Auburn and Ole Miss, sometimes the breaks just don’t go your way.
Should we be disappointed that players seemed to quit at various times this season? This was perhaps the most frustrating part of the year to me, as this team seemed to quit playing hard in multiple games: 1.) After taking a 28-14 lead against Ole Miss in the 3rd quarter, they quit. 2.) Other than a spirited 1st quarter, there was no fight against Alabama. 3.) After giving up a punt return for a touchdown against Florida, the team quit. Good teams and great players raise their play to another level when faced with adversity. This team seemed to wilt under the slightest bit of pressure. Of the teams 4 wins this year, 3 of them were in blowouts. And the 4th (Vanderbilt) was only close because the Cats once again quit playing in the 4th quarter. There just wasn’t enough fight to win a game in which there were setbacks.
Should we accept the occasional lack of effort because these kids were playing through a pandemic and the loss of a coach? It’s sometimes very easy for us as fans, myself included, to criticize the performance of our beloved Cats and forgetting that these are 19-23 year-old college kids (with the exception of 27 year-old punter Max Duffy, who is still living every 27-year old’s dream). 2020 has been the most difficult year that any of us have ever lived through, and we aren’t exactly handling it the best. A quick Google search for “Pandemic Fatigue”, will reveal countless articles of how we Americans no longer want to social distance, wear our masks, our follow any of the guidelines set forth from our government. So while we can’t seem to put forth the effort to wear a mask, it certainly is understandable how these young men could sometimes be so exhausted of it all, that it’s hard to muster up the effort needed to compete at an SEC level. And on top of all that, there was the death of offensive line coach John Schlarman:
This video brings tears to my eye every single time and really puts into perspective what he meant to the team. I can’t imagine how difficult this season has been for our players both mentally and physically.
Should we be extremely critical of the coaching staff? The blame has to go somewhere, right? And when your head coach is making $4.75 million/year, and your offensive coordinator is making almost $1 million/year, there are certain expectations that come with those salaries. Kentucky’s offense led by Eddie Gran did not meet those expectations this year. In fact, UK finished the year ranked 117th out of 127 season teams in total offense. Managing a paltry 311 yards per game, which was behind such offensive juggernauts as Army, Vanderbilt, UTEP, and Bowling Green. And that is with the greatest offensive line in the history of the school, a quarterback with the 3rd highest completion percentage in school history, and 3 very solid running backs. How could you mess that up? The pieces were there to have a very efficient offense, yet the coaches failed because they were unable to produce any reliable threats at wide receiver other than Josh Ali.
Should we accept that the coaches have never been through anything like this before either? A 10-game schedule against all SEC opponents. No cupcakes to fine tune and find the right lineups. No blowouts to get young guys experience and rest the starters. This season was a week-in and week-out grind unlike anything we have ever seen before. And, though we sometimes forget, coaches are people too. They have been dealing with the same struggles of 2020 that the rest of us have: not being able to see loved ones, trying to make the best of schools being shut down for their kids, and on top of that being responsible for the 85+ players on the roster. Ensuring players are kept safe and following all the Covid protocols, trying to prevent the spread of the virus throughout the team, and testing every single day probably wasn’t a part of the contract the coaching staff signed up for. Some credit should be given to Mark Stoops and Company for being one of only 2 teams in the SEC to play every game that was scheduled on the day it was scheduled. They certainly did their part to keep this team as healthy as possible. I should also point out, Kentucky was 4-4 against the 8 SEC opponents they were originally scheduled to play. Add in 3 wins against the mid-majors and another win against Louisville, and this team would have finished 8-4. At which point we are all praising Mark Stoops for another outstanding year.
After taking all of this in, I still am unsure how to feel about this football team. The victory over South Carolina to finish the season was huge in my book, as it proved we are still solidly above them, as well as Missouri and Vanderbilt as programs in the SEC East. We also beat Tennessee for the 2nd time in the Stoops era and can make a case that we are equal, if not better, to them as a program. We are slowly but surely continuing to climb the ladder. But this team lost games it shouldn’t, and was just a complete dumpster fire on offense. I think the decision to part ways with Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw was probably the right move. If Stoops is going to continue the upward trajectory of this team, we are going to have to become more diverse offensively.
I’m not sure how history will remember the 2020 Kentucky Wildcats football team, but let’s all hope that the only tests we have to worry about players passing in 2021 is in the classroom, and the only social distance we have to see is when we are running past defenders for touchdowns.