CECIL HURT: Kentucky is trying to gain ground on Alabama football but it’s a steep climb
The 2020 SEC football season is heading to the home stretch, and the Alabama Crimson Tide is in its accustomed position battling for a berth in the SEC Championship Game and potential postseason honors beyond that.
The Kentucky Wildcats are also in their accustomed position, and that’s not meant to be taken with snickering and the usual dismissive “basketball school” comments. But the SEC will be hosting a Championship Game for the 28th consecutive year, COVID-19 willing, and Kentucky hasn’t been there once.
Never. Not ever.
Can that long drought be attributed to a culture that, unlike Alabama and some of the other SEC states, is more attuned to basketball and horse racing than college football? Certainly Kentucky does everything it can to have a strong basketball program, one that annually wins recruiting championships and fills a 23,000-seat home arena. It pays top dollar to have a top coach, a formula with which Alabama is also familiar. But Kentucky’s football facilities are excellent. Mark Stoops has gradually earned respect for his coaching. With the recent firing of South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, he is the longest-tenured coach in the league among those not named Nick Saban.
There is some truth to the demographic theory: Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M have many more talented players in their immediate area than Kentucky does. (Ole Miss and Mississippi State probably do as well, but between talent poaching by nearby league members and their own Balkanized hatred of one another, recruiting a loaded roster is difficult for either.)
Geography can’t be the only reason, though. All along Kentucky’s long northern border, states on the opposite bank of the Ohio River are doing well. That doesn’t mean because Indiana is off to a good start this season it is suddenly an historically different program than Kentucky is. That’s not the case. But it does appear that the Midwest is still producing players.
History does carry weight, of course. That is resoundingly true in recruiting. One problem that most teams have when Alabama comes along with a scholarship offer is the “...but it’s Alabama” reaction from recruits. Kentucky has been stung repeatedly, the stings being particularly painful when it was Damien Harris or Jedrick Wills, who left the immediate Lexington area to come to Tuscaloosa.
Then there is the case of the current Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Mac Jones, not a Kentuckian but a former Kentucky commitment from Jacksonville, Florida.
“We did recognize Mac early on in the process,” Stoops said on his Monday Zoom conference. “(Assistant) Coach (Darin) Hinshaw and all of us watched him early, and we were impressed. We felt like there was a bright future for him, and he’s certainly proven us right.
"We wish he was here, but we still really love Mac, his family. A great young man. It’s really good to see him doing so well and playing at such a high level. He’s been so accurate. I wish he was here, but I’m happy for Mac.”
The response was classy, even more-so under the circumstances of UK’s long search for a dependable starting quarterback. (It can happen, as Alabama fans who remember Tim Couch know well.) A team can be competitive and well-coached, but having players like Harris, Wills and Jones lining up against you instead of with you takes a toll. Until then, although the Wildcats are slowly improving, the hill is still a steep one to climb.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt.