Before this season, when most people thought about Kentucky football and where it is headed, there really wasn’t much to think about.
The Wildcats have been a non-factor in the SEC for the better part of the last four decades, and there was no reason to believe that anything would change this season.
By this time most years, the majority of the Kentucky faithful are looking forward to Midnight Madness and the start of another successful basketball season.
Entering the sixth season of the Mark Stoops era, which has mostly centered on the pitiful and—in the last two seasons—the mediocre, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to say that Stoops was coaching for his job, despite being given a contract extension late last season that could keep him at the school through 2022.
But Stoops has steadily stockpiled talent, landing a top-40 recruiting class in each of the last six years. It's finally coming to fruition, as Kentucky has been one of the biggest surprises of the season.
First, the Wildcats beat Florida in Gainesville to snap a 31-game losing streak to the Gators. Two weeks later, they shut down a Mississippi State team that was thought to be a contender.
And now, after a holding on to beat South Carolina 24–10 in a sloppy, penalty-filled affair, Kentucky is 5–0 for the first time since 2007 and has its first 3–0 start in SEC play since 1977.
Preseason all-conference running back Benny Snell continued his rise up Heisman lists, rushing for 99 yards, and the 'Cats used a dominant defensive performance to beat the Gamecocks for the fifth straight season.
South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley had his worst game of the year, completing only 13 of his 28 attempts for 148 yards—with 58 of those coming on a touchdown pass to Deebo Samuel. He was also picked off three times.
Kentucky is succeeding in the most basic of ways: a consistently good running game and an opportunistic defense.
Snell is the bellcow of the offense, and opposing defenses have yet to find a way to shut him down despite UK's limitations in the passing game. Entering Saturday’s game, the Wildcats ranked near the bottom of the FBS in explosive plays, having only 10 plays that went for 20 or more yards.
Despite the 5–0 start, Kentucky must show improvement in the passing game and cut down on mistakes if it is to be a true contender to Georgia in the SEC East. The Wildcats had only 132 passing yards and were flagged 11 times for 115 yards on Saturday, which constantly put the offense in long down and distance situations.
While quarterback Terry Wilson has been serviceable, the offense is not built to come from behind and those limitations could spell trouble later in the season. Wilson is completing more than 67% of his passes, but is averaging a pedestrian six yards per attempt.
Although Kentucky led for the entire game against the Gamecocks, it had only 72 yards in the second half, including -3 yards in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats also failed to convert any of their six third-down chances.
The defense has limited the big play so far this season, giving up only 13 plays of 20 or more yards. And on Saturday, it held South Carolina to a 5-for-15 mark on third down after entering the game having allowed opponents to convert 45% of those tries.
The most telling stat was on South Carolina’s penultimate possession. It had the ball for 20 plays and gained 71 yards, chewing up more than seven minutes of the clock, only for Bentley to be intercepted in the end zone with three minutes remaining. The Gamecocks QB did not return to the game after suffering an apparent leg injury.
Kentucky has some possible pitfalls on its upcoming schedule, including trips to Texas A&M next Saturday and Missouri on Oct. 27. If it gets by those, No. 2 Georgia will come to Lexington the following week for what would be a huge showdown. No matter what happens against the Bulldogs, make no mistake that these Wildcats are equipped to win double-digits games and compete for a major bowl bid.