In 2019, for the first time in the 21st century, the Kentucky Wildcats will open a college football season without a decade-plus losing streak to a conference opponent hanging over their heads.
Last year, Mark Stoops, Benny Snell, Josh Allen and Co. ended the last of what had been three long losing streaks that did much to damage the perception of UK football.
With Snell running for 175 yards and Allen forcing a game-clinching fumble, Stoops coached Kentucky to a 27-16 victory at Florida. To the ever-lasting relief of The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan, the victory snapped a 31-game losing skid against the Gators.
There will always be a special place in Wildcats sports lore for the wins that ended “the Kentucky ugly streaks.”
In 2010, Randall Cobb and Mike Hartline drove a stake into the first such streak when Coach Joker Phillips and the Cats upset No. 10 South Carolina 31-28. Until that night, UK had lost all 17 games it had played against teams coached by Steve Spurrier.
The following season, forced by injuries to play wide receiver Matt Roark at quarterback, Phillips and Kentucky snapped a 26-game losing skid against Tennessee with an improbable 10-7 win at Commonwealth Stadium.
With all three of those embarrassing streaks at last dead and buried, one could not blame UK supporters for feeling a certain disorientation, albeit a happy one, as the 2019 season dawns.
Alas, there seems to be a new SEC “bogeyman” emerging to torment UK.
Kentucky enters 2019 having lost nine straight games to Georgia.
For all the good work Stoops has done at UK, the Kentucky head man is 0-6 against the Bulldogs.
Under Stoops, UK’s other five losing margins against Georgia have been 42, 32, 24, 29 and 17 points.
The 34-17 loss to Georgia last season at Kroger Field was the most hurtful, of course. It came in a game that decided the 2018 SEC East Division title and denied the Wildcats their first trip ever to the SEC Championship Game.
Kentucky has not always had such a rough time opposite Georgia.
Over his final four games against the Dawgs (2006-09), Rich Brooks went 2-2, defeating the Bulldogs in Lexington in 2006 (24-20) and again in Athens in 2009 (34-27).
Phillips never bested Georgia in his three seasons (2010-12) as top Cat. But under Joker, UK played the Bulldogs relatively close, losing by 13, nine and five points, respectively.
It has become an oft-repeated football coaching cliche that “you don’t want to let one team beat you twice” in a season.
In the Stoops era, not only is Kentucky 0-6 against Georgia, the Wildcats are also 0-6 in the game that has followed the Bulldogs on the Wildcats’ schedules.
Since 2013, Kentucky has lost to Tennessee four times, and to Vanderbilt and Louisville once each in the contest after Georgia.
Missouri — a team that Kentucky has beaten four years straight — gets the coveted “week after Georgia” slot on the 2019 UK schedule.
This fall, UK will travel to Athens to face Smart’s Bulldogs on Oct. 19. It will be the first time since 2012 that the Cats and Dawgs have played earlier than the month of November.
According to various media reports from the Peach state, UK will encounter a stirred foe at Sanford Stadium. If those stories are to be believed, there are hard feelings at Georgia over Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran turning down an offseason opportunity to join Smart’s staff.
Under Smart, a former Georgia safety and a longtime Nick Saban assistant, the Bulldogs have won 24 games over the past two seasons.
Smart came achingly close to winning the national championship for 2017 but Georgia was denied in overtime of the College Football Playoffs title game by Alabama.
Given the robust in-state recruiting profile of the state of Georgia, Smart has every opportunity to keep the Bulldogs in perennial contention for the national title.
For Kentucky, there do not figure to be many easy shots at victories over Georgia in the immediate future.
Still, now that UK has finally emerged from all three of the decade-plus losing streaks — Florida, Tennessee, Spurrier — that were like anvils weighing down Wildcats football, you do not want to see another such skid take root.
It would be another Kentucky legacy boost for Stoops if he can prevent Georgia from subjecting the next generation of UK football fans to another unnaturally long losing skid against a conference foe.