By LARRY VAUGHT
My third year covering University of Kentucky football the Wildcats went 10-1 in 1977 and dominated almost every team they played physically. It was a veteran team that seldom did anything fancy offensively or defensively. What that team did was just win.
Looking back I was way too young and inexperienced to appreciate just how good that Kentucky football team was. I never imagined it would be 41 years before I would get to see another Kentucky team win 10 games like this one just did with its dramatic 27-24 victory over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl Tuesday.
Not only did Kentucky win 10 games, but running back Benny Snell became UK’s all-time leading rusher with 3,873 yards and an All-American. Linebacker Josh Allen became the consensus national defensive player of the year and an All-American. Offensive lineman Bunchy Stallings became an All-American. Eight Wildcats have been invited to play in postseason all-star games and some estimate that 10 UK players could be picked in the NFL draft.
Perhaps it was only fitting that the final postgame press conference from this historic season ended with these comments from Allen and Snell.
“I’ve got something to say,” Allen, who had three quarterback sacks and a blocked field goal Tuesday, said after coach Mark Stoops answered his last question. “I’m leaving with this. You all record this. If I don’t go number one (in the NFL draft), I don’t know who is, and I stand true to that.”
“Tell them what it is, boy,” Snell said.
Tell them indeed because not often does UK get to tell the college football world about a season like this. Just consider a few facts:
— This is just the third time in school history that UK won at least 10 games, also 1950 (11) and 1977 (10).
— Kentucky swept the non-conference schedule, including the bowl game, for the first time since the 2008 season.
— Kentucky ended a 31-year losing streak to Florida by winning at Florida. Not only did the win end the losing streak to the Gators, but it gave UK a road win over a team that eventually won 10 games for the first time since winning at Penn State in 1977.
— Kentucky had five wins over teams that have won at least eight games – Florida, Mississippi State, Missouri, Middle Tennessee and Penn State. Florida, Mississippi State and Penn State were all ranked when they lost to UK, the first time UK has beat three ranked opponents in one season since 1977.
— Kentucky allowed 24 points or less in every game except Georgia and for the first time since 1986 UK allowed 34 points or less in every game.
“I feel like we’re going to go down as the best team to come out of Kentucky. That’s how I feel,” Allen, who had 17 quarterback sacks this season and a school record 31.5 in his career, said. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of great players on this team. We haven’t won 10 games in a very long time. We haven’t beat Florida in a very long time. We haven’t broken this many records in a very long time. Just a lot of accomplishments around this team.”
He’s right. Snell — the Citrus Bowl MVP with 26 rushes for 144 yards and two scores — also noted how UK was an underdog to Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Missouri and Penn State and won each of those games.
“Even when when teams are smack talking and we’re the underdogs coming into the game, such as Mississippi State or Florida, we set the record straight that this is Kentucky football, we’re not just about to lay down,” Snell, said. “Just as a group, as a team, I feel like there’s no other team, no other legacy that is like this, what we left, so I’m very happy. I’m very happy with my team.”
Kentucky fans are, too. Remember this was a team going into the season that many thought might struggle to win six games despite the return of Snell, Allen and many, many others. Instead, this team helped change what Stoops said was the culture of UK football but it also changed the national perception of Kentucky football. The Cats are physical — recently former UK all-SEC receiver Craig Yeast talked about how UK passes the SEC look test — and respected. They also now win close games and road games, two things UK often has had trouble doing.
Stoops is recruiting and developing NFL-caliber players that not only had three straight winning seasons, but they believed in their talent and it showed.
“We are legends. I feel like we are all legends,” Snell said after the win. “We are all special. We didn’t get no respect (going into the season). The bond here is deeper than football. We proved so many people wrong.”
Legends? Maybe not quite there yet but certainly the players were all part of a legendary season that UK fans are going to talk about for years and years … and should.