It seems safe to assume that a University of Kentucky football team has never faced as weird a dynamic to finish a season as the 2018 Wildcats do.
Now, having already battled for the regular-season championship, No. 11 Kentucky (7-2, 5-2 SEC) still has a fourth of its schedule left to play.
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By definition, a “trap game” is a contest that is made harder to win than it otherwise would be due to where it falls on the schedule.
UK goes to Tennessee off the hype of playing one of the nation’s best teams for the SEC East crown. Conversely, UT spent last week facing Conference USA foe Charlotte in what turned out to be a 14-3 slog of a victory for the Volunteers.
Though SEC title aspirations are gone, what’s at stake for Kentucky on Saturday is much in terms of how the current Cats season and team will ultimately be remembered in UK sports history.
A UK football team has not beaten Florida and Tennessee in the same season since 1977.
A UK football team has never beaten Florida, Tennessee and Louisville all in the same season.
This year, the Cats bested the Gators 27-16 in the season’s second week. U of L (2-7, 0-6) is in full-on program implosion in advance of the Kentucky-Louisville season finale Nov. 24.
So a victory at UT on Saturday would seem to remove the biggest remaining road block between the 2018 Wildcats and a UK football version of the “triple crown.”
Kentucky has not beaten Tennessee in Knoxville since 1984.
The Wildcats have not beaten the Volunteers in back-to-back seasons since 1976 and ‘77.
With UK having scored a 29-26 come-from-behind victory over UT last season in Lexington, an actual win streak against the Volunteers is possible for Kentucky on Saturday.
Even with last week’s loss to Georgia, Kentucky is still being projected this week for inclusion into a “New Year’s Six” bowl game.
Given that Kentucky’s games after its trip to Knoxville are a home game against Conference USA foe Middle Tennessee State (a good team at 6-3, 5-1 C-USA) and struggling U of L, Tennessee looms as the most dangerous remaining obstacle between UK and its first top-tier bowl trip in 67 years.
Saturday’s game “sets up” far better for new coach Jeremy Pruitt’s Vols than it does Stoops and the Cats.
Besides the risk of an emotional letdown following the hyped matchup against Georgia, Kentucky seems to have more vulnerabilities than it has had all year.
Kentucky star running back Benny Snell has been held under 100 yards rushing in four of the past five games. Not coincidentally, the Wildcats offense has failed to score more than 17 points in any game since Sept. 29 (a 24-14 win over South Carolina).
UK’s staunch defense finally gave way against Georgia, surrendering 444 yards to the Bulldogs.
Having lost its sense of invulnerability, will the Wildcats’ defense immediately regain its mojo?
This week, the middle of UK’s defense seems susceptible to attack. Both starting inside linebackers, senior Jordan Jones and junior Kash Daniel, are playing with broken hands, while free safety Darius West is suspended for the first half Saturday after being ejected for targeting last week.
Nothing ever comes easy for the Wildcats against the Volunteers. Since 1960, Kentucky has beaten Tennessee in football a whopping eight times — 1962, 1964, 1976, 1977, 1981, 1984, 2011 and 2017.
So what we are going to find out about UK against UT is whether the 2018 Wildcats are merely a good team or if the current Cats are “special.”
“Special teams” walk into trap games and find a way to win when things seem stacked against them.
Merely good teams do not win every “toss-up game” on their schedule. “Special teams” do.
Even if UK falls at UT, a potential nine-win regular season would be very good at Kentucky.
Beating Tennessee and taking a giant step toward only the third 10-win regular season in Wildcats football history would be “special.”
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory