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‘Cats Set Sights on East’s Big Three

By Matt Smith
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Kentucky has had some success, but now faces the next step in its road to relevance in the SEC East: beating Florida, Georgia or Tennessee.

A .500 record in SEC play. A huge upset as four-touchdowns underdogs of highly-ranked rival Louisville on the road. A bowl appearance for the first time since 2010.

Those are the accomplishments of the 2016 Kentucky Wildcats, who put the disappointment of consecutive 5-7 seasons behind them and took the next step forward in the long rebuilding process launched by head coach Mark Stoops back in 2013.

With the bowl streak gone and in-state bragging rights in its possession, Kentucky now faces the next step in its road to relevance in the SEC East: beating Florida, Georgia or Tennessee.

Stoops is now 0-12 against the division’s three bluebloods after blowout losses to the Gators and Volunteers last year and a last-second home defeat to the Bulldogs.

Those missed chances didn’t dampen the mood of last season, but another 0-for-3 against the top three teams is no longer the expectation. The Wildcats believe they are experienced enough and talented enough to end their 15-game skid against the trio.

“Our goal is to beat all three of them,” senior linebacker Courtney Love said. “I think we can. We’re a lot smarter. We’re a lot faster.”

Senior quarterback Stephen Johnson did not start the September loss to Florida last year, but was under center against Georgia and Tennessee. Johnson completed just 22 of his 51 pass attempts in those two games, with zero touchdown passes and two interceptions. Hopes of a first ever SEC East title depend on Johnson not repeating those performances from consecutive weeks last November.

Can the Wildcats actually win the East?

“We believe so,” Johnson said.

Stoops recognizes the struggles he’s had with the top three teams.

“We’ve had our opportunities,” Stoops said. “You look at last year’s game, Florida on the road, we didn’t play very good at all against Florida on the road (a 45-7 loss). The last time we played there we had a fantastic shot at winning the game (a triple-overtime loss).”

Going from 0-3 to 1-2 against the Gators, Bulldogs and Volunteers won’t be enough to have Stoops jumping for joy, who was hesitant to put too much emphasis on just 25 percent of his team’s schedule.

“We’re going to prepare to win every football game,” Stoops said. “Do I understand that’s a tall task? Absolutely, but I’m not going to concede anything.”

To achieve a streak-busting victory or victories, Stoops knows the burden is on his program to catch up to the top three teams and not wait for them to come back to the pack.          

“One thing I know is that they’re not going to take any steps back,” Stoops said of the trio of opponents. “They’re well-coached, and they’re working hard, and they have good players.”

Oh, one other thing. If you thought it was easy to get any of Kentucky’s representation to talk about an opponent other than their season-opening foe, Southern Miss, you’d be mistaken.

“We’re worried about Southern Miss,” safety Mike Edwards said. “We’re not worried about those teams. We’re just focusing on one team right now.”

Sigh. Political correctness wins out again at SEC Media Days.

I tried, and mostly failed, but at least I didn’t go 0-for-3. Can Kentucky avoid that distinction as well? Stay tuned. After they play Southern Miss, of course.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.