It is for the SEC East title, but Saturday’s game in Lexington is, for Georgia, only the third-biggest of this calendar year – and maybe only the fifth-biggest, depending on where you rate LSU in Baton Rouge and Florida in Jacksonville. For Kentucky, it’s merely the biggest in this native Kentuckian’s lifetime, and I’m as old as the Appalachians.
The Wildcats never play for titles, at least in this sport. Before this year, the last time the football Wildcats finished above .500 in SEC play was in 1977. Not many people recall them tying for first place with Alabama that year, which is largely due to Kentucky entering that season bearing a postseason ban for grievous recruiting sins. Which, you’d have to say, is typical Kentucky.
The history of Big Blue football is so twisted that those who’ve borne witness have gone numb to soul-crushing defeat. We cite the 1993 Peach Bowl, when linebacker Marty Moore intercepted a Clemson pass in the final minute to secure apparent victory. He fumbled it back to the grateful Tigers, who scored the winning touchdown with 20 seconds remaining. At many/most schools, that loss would rank as the all-time agony. At Kentucky, it mightn’t crack the bottom five.
Back to 1977: The Wildcats finished 10-1, 6-0 against SEC competition. They were among the most powerful teams I’ve ever seen. (After graduating from UK, I covered that season for The Cats’ Pause.) Their mighty defense was led by Art Still, who hailed from Camden, N.J. Their offense was ostensibly the option, although coach Fran Curci conceded, “We run the only option where the quarterback never pitches the ball.”
The quarterback – Derrick Ramsey, also of Camden – was in fact a tight end. He couldn’t really throw, but when every keeper yields seven yards, who needs the forward pass? The 1977 team beat North Carolina, West Virginia, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech and Tennessee in Lexington. It won on the road at – pause for emphasis – Penn State, LSU, Georgia and Florida.
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Those in Athens remember Kentucky’s visit of Oct. 22 as the day Prince Charles saw his first (and possibly last) college football game; it was also the day the reigning SEC champs lost 33-0 to the basketball school. At midfield before the game, Vince Dooley introduced the royal guest to Curci, who asked his highness, “Want some gum?”
Those Wildcats lost their second game, falling 21-6 at Baylor, and also their excellent fullback Rod Stewart, who tore his ACL diving for one of Ramsey’s imprecise passes in Waco. Those of us covering the team had serious discussions as to whether they’d win another game. They won them all. And they went nowhere.
The NCAA had hit Kentucky – basketball was involved, but not nearly as deeply as Curci’s program – with sanctions as the 1976 season was ending. The school was given the option of taking its one-year postseason ban in either ’76 or ’77. Given that those Wildcats had gone 7-4 and earned a Peach Bowl bid, which would mark Kentucky’s bowl appearance since 1952, the bird in the hand had to be seized. Had the ban been taken in ’76, the ’77 team would have gone to the Sugar Bowl.
(A further incongruity: The ’77 team isn’t recognized as conference champ, even though it tied Alabama for first. That’s due to the bowl ban. The ’76 Wildcats, however, are listed as co-champs with Georgia, although that designation came ex post facto. Mississippi State was made to forfeit all victories from that season, one of which was over the Wildcats. Thus did Kentucky’s 4-2 league record become 5-1 – same as that of the Bulldogs, who’d trounced the Wildcats 31-7 on a rainy night in Lexington.)
Long story made not terribly short: Georgia and Kentucky won’t arrive at Kroger Field as equals. The Bulldogs played in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018, and for the national title a week later. The Wildcats haven’t played in a game of such weight since Jan. 1, 1951, when Bear Bryant’s 10-1 Wildcats, owners of the program’s only outright SEC championship, upset Bud Wilkinson’s No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Babe Parilli was the Kentucky quarterback, Bob Gain the Outland-winning lineman. The Sugar Bowl MVP was Walt Yowarsky, who recovered two fumbles and stopped Heisman winner Billy Vessels for a key loss.
The contemporary ’Cats put themselves in position to win the East outright by beating Missouri 15-14 Saturday via a touchdown pass on an untimed down after the Tigers had been flagged for pass interference at 0:00. My line in the Jacksonville press box: “Kentucky has a history of winning that sort of game.” That was an alum’s joke. Kentucky has NEVER won that sort of game.
Covering the 1980 Wildcats for the Lexington Herald-Leader was 1980, I saw four games lost in the final minute. The first was when Indiana’s Steve Corso – his dad Lee was the Hoosiers’ coach – caught the winning touchdown on a pattern his dad, recalling father-son backyard sessions, dubbed the Pine Tree Shot. The last came after Cris Collinsworth was adjudged inbounds on the catch that set up a winning Florida field goal at the horn. An incensed Curci started to fling his stocking cap at the offending referee. The late decision to hold on to his hat left him rolling, literally, along the sideline.
The worst of all the losses came in the Superdome. Leading by a point, Kentucky punted out of bounds on the Tulane 8 with 12 seconds remaining. The Green Wave had no timeouts left. A pass to midfield drew an interference flag. (Interference was then a spot foul, not the more benign 15-yard penalty.) A pass to the Kentucky 4 drew another, this one sketchier than the first, as time expired. Tulane kicked the winning field goal on an untimed play.
This was Curci’s wild-and-teary-eyed postgame briefing in its sanitized entirety: “Go ask the bleeping players how they bleeping feel!” Then he dashed off into the night. In the locker room, I saw a player lying face down in the shower. He was still in his full uniform, helmet included. He was sobbing.
That was Kentucky football, and maybe it still is. But lots of things that just don’t happen to the Wildcats keep happening. They beat Florida for the first time since 1986. They beat Mississippi State by three touchdowns and South Carolina by two. They trailed Missouri 14-3 with six minutes left and won on a punt return and a touchdown pass after 0:00 thrown by a quarterback who’d been benched in the third quarter.
They’re 7-1, same as Georgia. They’re 5-1 in the SEC, same as Georgia. Do I believe Kentucky is as good as Georgia? No. But did I expect these or any Wildcats to be playing for the SEC East title? Not in this lifetime. Yet here they are.