Of all the Les Miles quotes that are bound to stand the test of time, his famous quip on LSU’s Death Valley — "Where dreams go to die" — was most applicable for the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday night. It was an unfortunate result for one of the nation’s better turnaround stories this season, one that looked all too familiar for the SEC’s longest-tenured doormat.
Clutching onto a 5-1 record heading into Baton Rogue, the program’s fastest start since 2007 when it eventually rose to No. 8 nationally, the Wildcats were stocked with confidence. In their second year under coach Mark Stoops things have started to come together. Sure, the schedule was rather unimpressive, but wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina all but guaranteed Kentucky had broken out of the cellar. The only question was how many stories it could climb.
LSU’s dominating 41-3 win in Death Valley pushed Stoops’s team a few steps back down the stairs. On a night when Missouri marched into The Swamp and handed Florida an embarrassing 42-13 beatdown, Kentucky looked exactly like the kind of team that lost to Florida in triple overtime. This particular team won’t be reaching that No. 8 spot in the polls.
Kentucky is still 5-2 (2-2 SEC), so this season still has bowl eligibility in its sights and, by all accounts, it’s been a move in the right direction. But Death Valley provided an enormous opportunity: a chance to keep pace with the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC East and legitimize a record acquired against mediocre competition. That didn’t happen.
Now it’s a matter of just how great of a divide is there between the conference’s haves and have nots (if LSU can be considered a have in 2014). Five SEC games were decided by an average of 34 points on Saturday, and the Wildcats found themselves on the wrong side of the boundary. And with Mississippi State, Georgia, Louisville, Missouri and Tennessee still remaining on the regular season slate, that pipe dream trip to Atlanta looks all but out of reach at this point.
As the final score indicates, plenty went wrong for Kentucky in Baton Rouge. Perhaps the worst part of it, though, was the Wildcats’ defense was exposed for the third time this season. While the group came in ranked 16th nationally in scoring defense (18.7 points per game), it’s also the same unit that allowed Florida to score 36. South Carolina scored 38. And now LSU puts up 41 … and those aren’t even close to the SEC’s top offenses. It’s pretty clear that Kentucky’s defense is at least a year or two away from being on par with the league’s top dogs.
The Tigers gashed the Wildcats for 303 rushing yards behind their stable of backs and converted on more than half of their third-down attempts.
In all fairness, this was Kentucky’s worst performance of the season. The offense never got off the ground, there were few sustained drives and this Tigers defense, for pretty much the first time this season, looked up to LSU’s standards. Kentucky’s true value likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Still, with the schedule ratcheting up a few notches — including three of the top-20 teams in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ efficiency rankings in Mississippi State (coming off a bye), Georgia and Louisville — the Wildcats had better hope they aren’t the team that lost to Florida in a shootout and got pummeled on Saturday night. If so, even the Tennessee and Mizzou games are going to be uphill battles.
There’s not a single guaranteed win left on the schedule and if Kentucky wants to take that step back into the bowl picture for the first time since 2010, it’ll have to put this one in the rearview. There are some pipe dreams back there, but they’re all but dead.