What If? —By John Huang
(ATHENS, Ga.) — For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.” When John Greenleaf Whittier authored those famous lines from his nineteenth century poem, he could have easily been referencing Kentucky’s 2017 football season. Although the Wildcats sported a glossy 7-3 record heading into Georgia, many in BBN found themselves still lamenting those heartbreaking last-second defeats from earlier in the year.
Even UK head coach Mark Stoops acknowledged that those lost opportunities eat away at him constantly. “There’s a human side of me that says ‘what if,’” he admitted. “I remember bad beats for 20 years. I’ll never forget bad beats. You always try to learn from them and grow from them. The only thing I can say to you is I understand. I’m frustrated and disappointed in some ways as well.”
Count me among those most frustrated and disappointed. I’m headed down to Athens for what should have been an SEC eastern division clinching showdown between the Cats and the Dawgs. Instead, a questionable holding call (against Florida) and a dubious fumble replay reversal (against Ole Miss) has cast a pall of irrelevancy on this nationally televised contest between the hedges.
It’s hard enough traveling down to Georgia. It’s doubly difficult after attending a late UK basketball game the night before. An early 6:30 am flight to Atlanta, followed by another 90-minute drive in a rental car has me a bit on edge. I’m groggy, tired, and sleep deprived as I cruise into Athens in plenty of time to scope out the town. As I drive onto the Bulldog campus, Sanford Stadium greets me unexpectedly—rising majestically out of a random cluster of academic haze—shocking me out of my somnambulant reverie. As I settle into the open-air press box, my mood mysteriously changes. Mitch Barnhart pours me a coke and I’m suddenly wide awake and ready for the Wildcats to shock the world with an upset for the ages.
Any doubts that the Georgia crowd would be hung over from the Auburn upset last week were dispelled immediately prior to kickoff. Sanford Stadium was boisterous and electric, in a regal and aristocratic kind of way, suggestive of a top-tier SEC powerhouse program cloaked in traditional royalty. Fortunately for the Wildcats, the Bulldog team wasn’t nearly as pumped, turning the ball over on their very first possession and spotting Kentucky a quick 3-0 lead. An unfortunate roughing the punter penalty on Georgia’s next possession gave the Bulldogs just the lift they needed. Kentucky hung tough for a quarter and a half before succumbing to the all too familiar opponent blitz right before the half as Georgia took a 21-6 lead into intermission.
A well-orchestrated 8-play, 75-yard drive by Kentucky to open the second half cut the deficit to eight, giving the small, blue-clad contingent of fans making the trip a glimmer of hope. Georgia then countered immediately with a touchdown drive of their own, effectively signaling the end of any upset dreams. Throughout the afternoon, Kentucky tried to play smash mouth football, but Benny Snell Jr.’s 94 yards on 22 attempts was no match for the three-headed rushing monster of Nick Chubb (15-151, 2 TDs), Sony Michel (12-87, 3 TDs), and D’Andre Swift (7-66). The Bulldogs dominated the Wildcats in total yardage 504-262. Final Score: Georgia 42, Kentucky 13.
While heading back to Lexington, I’m still left wondering “what might have been.” Although Georgia proved superior this afternoon, it wasn’t quite the “bye” week their fans expected. Would the outcome have been different had the stakes been higher? I guess we’ll never know. At the end of the day, Kentucky stands at 7-4 and returns home next week for its regular season finale against in-state rival Louisville. As fans, we’re not disappointed with our record per se. It’s just the nagging thought that with such a favorable schedule laid out this year, a lucky bounce here or there and Kentucky could easily have been competing for the conference championship. It’s especially painful because opportunities for a magical season like this come along once in a blue millennium.
Coach Stoops was predictably robotic in his postgame comments. “I was disappointed in the way we played,” he said. “We knew we’d have to play a very good football team and we’d have to play some very good football on our end. I really didn’t feel like we did that. I felt like early, we let some opportunities slip…” On this particular day, it might as well have been Whittier up on the podium. “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.