LEXINGTON, Ky. — Starting with Fran Curci’s 10-1 team in 1977 through the ensuing coaching tenures of Jerry Claiborne, Bill Curry, Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss, Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips, Kentucky in 36 seasons won a combined 13 games over teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
UK’s next victory over a ranked foe will be the 13th such win of the Mark Stoops coaching tenure alone.
The Wildcats’ (6-3, 3-3 SEC) next chance to beat a ranked team will come Saturday, when No. 8 Alabama (8-1, 6-0 SEC) visits Kroger Field for a high noon kickoff that will be UK’s 2023 home finale.
Of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference “They seem to be getting better and stronger as the year goes on. That will be a big challenge for us, just to match their physicality.”
Alabama’s visit to Lexington will also be the final chance for the 2023 Wildcats to make a statement against an elite-level SEC program.
For all the obvious improvements Stoops has engineered in Kentucky’s football fortunes — and those gains have been extensive — UK success against the top tier of the SEC has proven fully elusive.
Under Stoops, Kentucky is 0-11 against SEC East kingpin Georgia. In those 11 losses to the Bulldogs, Kentucky has been outscored by an average of 34.9 to 12.7.
Since the Stoops era began in 2013, UK is 0-3 versus SEC West kingpin Alabama. The Crimson Tide has outscored the Wildcats by an average of 48.3 to 5.3 in those three defeats.
Overall under Stoops, Kentucky is 12-25 against the AP Top 25. After starting 2-12 in such games from 2013 through 2017, UK and Stoops have gone 10-13 vs. ranked foes since the start of the 2018 season.
Yet the Cats have not been able to pierce the very top level. Under Stoops, Kentucky is 1-17 vs. the AP top 10. Versus the top five, UK is 0-9 since 2013.
When Kentucky backers speak of wanting to see the Wildcats “go to the next level,” success against teams such as Alabama in games like Saturday’s are what they mean.
Of course, that ambition is far easier verbalized than realized.
“You know what you’re going to get with Bama — big, strong dudes, big and physical, and they always are, not just in the trenches, across the board,” Stoops says. “That comes from great recruiting and great developing.”
After the 2020 season, Stoops seemed to acknowledge that the attributes that had fueled Kentucky’s football rise — a rock-ribbed defense and a power-rushing attack — were not going to be enough to fell teams such as Alabama and Georgia.
When Kentucky hired Liam Coen off the staff of the Los Angeles Rams to run the Wildcats offense in 2021, the hope was the coach could install a dynamic passing attack onto what UK already had.
In large part due to Coen, Kentucky has been able to attract transfer quarterbacks Will Levis — this week named by the NFL’s Tennessee Titans as their full-time starter — and Devin Leary, as well as coveted wide receiver recruits Barion Brown and Dane Key.
Yet, reflecting the challenge of coaching football at Kentucky, it has proven difficult for UK to maintain the highest quality in all areas of its program at the same time.
While Stoops and Co. are seeking to upgrade the passing attack, the offensive line — which had been the staple of UK’s rise — has not remained at the level of the vintage “Big Blue Wall.”
Meanwhile, against the three best teams the Cats have faced this season, what had been in recent years a consistently stingy Kentucky defense has been gashed for an average of 473.7 yards and 40.7 points a game versus Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee.
In the big picture, while UK looks for ways to close the gap on the SEC’s top tier, programs against which Kentucky has recently held the upper hand are — darned them — actively working to reverse their fortunes against Stoops and the troops.
That’s why Kentucky home losses over the past two seasons against three of those teams UK had “passed” — South Carolina (2022), Vanderbilt (2022) and Missouri (2023) — have felt so damaging.
On Saturday, UK could undo a lot of the disappointment of the past two seasons with an upset of Jalen Milroe, Dallas Turner, Kool-Aid McKinstry and an Alabama team on the verge of adding yet another SEC West championship.
For Stoops and Kentucky, that would at last be a trip to the elusive promised land that is college football’s “next-level.”
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