Words never spoken were spoken by Laura Rutledge of the SEC Network to the crowd in Rupp Arena on Friday night: “The SEC East goes through Lexington!” Kentucky’s basketball team was playing an exhibition against Indiana (Pa.), and a crowd of 20,095 – yes, this is still Kentucky – had gathered. But for one weekend, this was absolutely a two-sport town/state.
Afterward, Kentucky coach John Calipari was asked if, with his team set to play Duke in Indianapolis on Tuesday, it felt strange how much attention today’s football game had drawn. Said Calipari: “Who do they play?”
Then: “Oh, I'm just kidding. Well, I'm happy. And I'm happy for Mark (Stoops) and his staff. I'm happy for those players. I'm so happy the guys that came back can say it's an experience that I'll live with the rest of my life. They're a team that feels good and confident about themselves. I mentioned Mark has empowered the team. When your wide receiver (Lynn Bowden) comes up to you (in the hairbreadth win at Missouri) and says, ‘Let me run this punt back,’ and you go, ‘Go for it kid, go.’ ”
Then: “They didn't do it to be selfish. Someone else told me that the tight end (C.J. Conrad), they were going to change a play and he said, ‘No, no, you run it, I'll make this catch.’ I'm happy for their quarterback (Terry Wilson), how he played. I mean, these guys are balling now, and Georgia's really good. Like, Georgia's really good. You ready for this? We're really good, too. Our defense, woof. So it should be a great game. We're not going to practice around that time because I know I want to see it, and I'm imagining our players will want to see it, so they get a chance to go over.”
Again, my listing of full disclosures: I was born in Maysville, Ky., which is 64 miles from here; I graduated from UK in 1977; I covered Kentucky for both The Cats’ Pause and the Lexington Herald-Leader. My orthodontist’s office sat a half-mile from what’s now Kroger Field. My mother had surgery in Central Baptist Hospital – now Baptist Health– that’s within walking distance. I know a bit about Lexington, and I know a bit about Kentucky football. This is the biggest Kentucky football game of my lifetime.
At the basketball game – yes, I attended – at Rupp on Friday, local writers kept asking if I thought the Wildcats could win. My answer: Probably not. I consider Georgia the better team by more than a little. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is at least a two-touchdown game. But Kentucky, as the saying goes, is working with house money. This is the first time it will finish about .500 in SEC play since 1977, and if it wins today … well, it’ll be playing at Mercedes-Benz Stadium – even if it loses its final three games.
Missouri has won the SEC East. (Twice.) South Carolina has won the SEC East. (Once.) Vanderbilt and Kentucky have never come close. To be honest, I never figured Kentucky would ever come close. This is not the Wildcats’ best sport. But Mark Stoops, a native Ohioan, has managed to pluck enough players – Benny Snell chief among them – from the state just north of here to turn this into a competitive SEC team, and this year the Big Blue has broken upward.
That said, there is about this game a feeling that, for the team that has never been in this position, it might prove a bridge too far. Georgia has spent the past 15 months playing big game after big game. Kentucky’s talent is better than it has been since the ’70s, but it’s still not Georgia’s talent. A lot would have to go right for the home side to win, and generally that means turnovers, and Georgia is pretty good at not turning it over.
That said … this is still a heck of a setting, and much of that has to do with the improbability of it all. You always figured Georgia-LSU would be big, and Georgia-Florida is never small. But Georgia-Kentucky as a winner-take-all for the division title? Nobody saw that coming, and it might never come again. But here we are, about to pay witness.
(One thing more: The Breeders’ Cup is being staged just down I-64 at Churchill Downs. This is a state known for horse racing and, apart from the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup is racing’s biggest weekend. But it’s not the biggest doing in the commonwealth this weekend. And then, come Tuesday, UK plays Duke. Stop me if you’ve heard this already, but UK hates Duke.)