Tennessee, Kentucky approaching crossroads

Marvin Westwestwords

Tennessee has a new problem.

That crash you heard over the weekend was coach Mark Stoops and his Kentucky Wildcats coming back to Earth. They landed on the hard rocks of reality.

After just eight and two-thirds seasons of climbing the Southeastern Conference tree, limb by limb, Stoops topped out. He achieved some level of greatness. His football team at a basketball school reached No. 11 in the AP poll.

Stoops was just five victories short of Paul “Bear” Bryant’s famous 60 from long, long ago. UK fans feared Mark might jump to the LSU job. If he became SEC coach of the year, he could command $10 million instead of just five.

The Wildcats, on their way to an 11-1 season and a big New Year’s Day bowl, were creating worries. Rivals would likely poach assistants. It was going to be difficult to hold the roster together. Agents and pro scouts were lusting after the stars, of which there are many.

Alas, some of the glow is suddenly gone. Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers riddled the Wildcats and broke Josh Dobbs’ record for SEC accuracy. Rogers completed 92 per cent, an astounding 36 of 39. The Bulldogs picked off three Will Levis passes and recovered a fumble. The winners more than doubled the losers in total yardage.

“We didn’t match the intensity. I felt like we got pushed around,” Stoops said. “It was a very deflating defeat.”

You can say that again.

OK, “Deflating defeat.”

Here’s the problem for Tennessee: Stoops and the Wildcats now face trying to save their spectacular season. They are going to be in a very bad mood come Saturday night in Lexington. Blue shirts will have practiced hitting opponents harder. Levis is committed to throwing to teammates. There is talk that runners will run with more enthusiasm. Leading rusher Chris Rodriguez got only 34 yards at Starkville.

Kentucky’s recent rise was no fluke. Stoops earned his status. He built a firm foundation, tough lines on both sides of the ball. He realized the Wildcats lacked a pulse on offense last year. He made a very difficult decision to part ways with old friend Eddie Gran and brought in Liam Coen from the NFL (Rams) to modernize the attack and call plays.

Coen introduced the concept of forward passing. That attracted Levis, transfer from Penn State. Wan’Dale Robinson, Mr. Football 2018 among Kentucky preps, hurried home from Nebraska to catch the ball. He has more touchdowns, more receptions and more yards than the Vols’ Velus Jones, more than Cedric Tillman.

Kentucky’s launch was the win over Florida in Lexington, first in 35 years. Fans, a bit overjoyed, streamed onto Kroger Field. The celebration cost $250,000. The SEC has an affinity for that penalty figure.

After that, Kentucky shocked LSU. After that, the Wildcats fought and did not totally fold between the Georgia hedges. The loss at Mississippi State, worse looking than the 31-17, was very disruptive. The poll drop was to 18.

If you accept that Kentucky is now at a crossroads, where does that put the Volunteers? They lost a close one to Ole Miss and got clobbered in the fourth quarter by Alabama. The Lexington adventure is a chance to avoid a four-game losing streak. Georgia is waiting in line.

There is no way to know the results of Tennessee’s open date. It was not a total vacation (no cruises, Disneyland or family picnics). The emphasis was on health and welfare.

We’ll find out later (near kickoff) how many Mays and other linemen will play, whether running backs Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small are improved, if a quorum remains in the secondary and how much help medics have been treating Hendon Hooker’s bruised knee.

What we do know is that Kentucky was once a good football neighbor. Tennessee won 26 in a row from 1984 to 2011.

There was a close call in 2007. The SEC East title was on the line. The Vols decided they were worthy. So what if it took four overtimes and nearly five hours. Erik Ainge threw for 397 yards and seven touchdowns. Arian Foster had 216 total yards. Tennessee won, 52-50.

The Wildcats stopped the long losing streak with a wide receiver at quarterback. Derek Dooley coaching brilliance contributed.

Tennessee thereafter restored order and won the next five.

Times have changed. The Vols are recently 2-2 against the Wildcats. Perhaps you recall last season, UK 34, UT 7, at Neyland Stadium. Two Jarrett Guarantano passes turned into Kentucky touchdowns. Two other turnovers made it humbling.

That was the middle of October. The truth about Jeremy Pruitt was still hidden.

The truth about Mark Stoops is slow to show. He is 55-52 as Kentucky coach. His record against SEC foes is 28-44. Right this minute, Tennessee is pivotal if he is to regain recent applause.

The Wildcats are XXL for the Vols. Of such upsets are winning seasons made.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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