ATHENS — If you’re searching for an opinion on Kentucky — that’d be the state or the state university’s sports teams — you’d be advised to start with John Clay. We did and, fortunately, Clay agreed again to be our Opposing View guest.
Clay is a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has been for a long time. A couple of decades, in fact. And he’s been with that excellent newspaper since 1981. He became the Wildcats’ beat writer in 1987 before being promoted to “Big Time Columnist” in 2000. Not sure if that’s an official title or not.
Anyway, Clay doesn’t mind sharing his opinion, which we like here at The View. And he’s usually offering it on Kentucky basketball. But he is finding himself being asked more and more this year about this UK football team.
If you haven’t heard, they’re pretty darn good. Nearly as good as your No. 6-ranked Georgia Bulldogs, based on record and ranking. The No. 11 Wildcats are also 7-1 and 5-1 in the SEC, just like the Bulldogs, and they just received a No. 9 distinction from first the College Football Playoff rankings, released Tuesday. Those are the only ones that matter, as we all know, and they also had Georgia sixth.
But it’s the SEC Eastern Division championship trophy — yes, they really have one for that — for which the Bulldogs and Kentucky will be playing on Saturday afternoon at the newly-renovated Commonwealth. Excuse me, Kroger Field at Commonwealth Stadium they’re now calling it. And even though basketball season opens in the Bluegrass State on Tuesday — featuring No. 4 Duke at the No. 2 ‘Cats, no less — absolutely all the attention in the Big Blue Nation is sharply focused on this football game.
You can tell from his comments below that even the mild-mannered Clay is fired up about it. He’s a great writer with some sharp insights and a great sense of humor. So be sure to follow him the rest of the week on Twitter @JohnClayIV and on his dedicated page on the Herald-Leader’s website.
Now let’s get to Clay’s insights on the ‘Cats and Saturday’s momentous football game:
The View: Wow, what an incredible year this has been for the Wildcats and coach Mark Stoops! What do you make of it, John? You’ve covered this program a long time. How does this team compare to other great Kentucky teams you’ve seen and can you put this current run into some kind of historical context for our readers?
CLAY: Doris Kearns Goodwin may know American history, but I know Kentucky football history. I attended my first game at age 8 in 1967. I was a freshman at UK when the Cats went 10-1. I became the UK football beat reporter for the Herald-Leader in 1987, then columnist in 2000. As current Samford coach and former UK assistant Chris Hatcher once told me, “You’ve seen a lot of losing football.”
This is not the best Kentucky football team I’ve seen, but it’s certainly the best at knocking down doors. It’s the first UK team to beat Florida since 1986. It’s the first to clinch a winning SEC record since that 1977 team. (That’s 41 years.) It’s the first to be in a legitimate position to win the SEC East since the league expanded in 1992.
There are a lot of long-suffering Kentucky football fans who never thought they would live long enough to see that happen. I’m not supposed to be a fan, but I know the feeling.
The View: What have you learned about Stoops that you might not have known when he first took over the football program? And has anybody up there noticed that it’s basketball season yet?
CLAY: Going off his background, I knew he was an excellent defensive coordinator with a strong football pedigree. Not sure I knew about his ability to evaluate talent and then develop that talent, two traits that are absolute requirements if you’re going to turn a program like Kentucky into a success.
Josh Allen is a prime example. Allen was a 2-star prospect coming out of New Jersey whose only other scholarship offer came from Monmouth. Stoops liked Allen’s length and athleticism. Four years later, Allen has a chance to be SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is a potential top 10 pick in next summer’s NFL draft. Even Stoops admits Allen has exceeded his expectations. Development has a lot to do with that.
As for basketball, Kentucky opens next Tuesday with Duke. In ordinary times, that’s all anyone here would be talking about. These are not ordinary times.
The View: I think we all know about RB Benny Snell and LB Josh Allen. Can you point to some other players you believe to have been difference makers for UK football this year?
CLAY: Safety Mike Edwards is the unsung hero of UK’s best defense since Art Still and that 1977 team, which blanked Georgia 33-0 in front of Prince Charles. Derrick Baity has played well at cornerback. Jordan Jones is an active linebacker who has matured. Linebacker Kash Daniel is currently limited by a fractured hand, but the Paintsville native is on his way to becoming a Kentucky folk hero.
On offense, sophomore Lynn Bowden is a playmaker. Not the regular punt returner, he asked for a chance at Missouri and went 67 yards for a score on a day when he also had 166 yards receiving. Senior tight end C.J. Conrad is a potential pro. Bunchy Stallings and George Asafo-Adeji have won SEC Lineman of the Week honors. Then there’s quarterback Terry Wilson, who has struggled at times, but led the final drive that beat Missouri.
The View: Apparently tons of Georgia fans are coming up that way again. What do some first-timers need to know as far as where to go and what to do around Lexington and what might they need to know if they want to take in some horse racing?
CLAY: The bad news is that Keeneland’s fall meet ended last Saturday. (Oh, for the Octobers of old when Georgia visited Lexington every other year and Dawg fans could do the day/night, Keeneland/football doubleheader.) The good news is that the Breeders’ Cup takes place this weekend at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Tickets may be hard to come by, but there’s a full slate of excellent racing on Friday.
As for Lexington, you can still tour Keeneland or visit the Kentucky Horse Park. Bourbon is big in the Bluegrass and there are a plenty of distilleries to tour. History buffs can visit Henry Clay’s home “Ashland.” And there are a wide variety of excellent restaurants in the area. We even have our own Shake Shack.
The View: If you had to boil it down to one or two things, where do you think the Cats have the advantage on Saturday and what do they need to do to take down No. 6 Georgia and play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time in school history?
CLAY: Kentucky’s defense is good enough to keep the Cats in any game. Last Saturday proved that again. UK did not allow Missouri a first down the entire second half, and Mizzou boasts an NFL-ready quarterback in Drew Lock. The defense will need a similar effort Saturday.
To win, however, Kentucky has to get the game of the season from an offense that has struggled mightily the last few weeks. Benny Snell has to be Benny Snell. And quarterback Terry Wilson has to build off that clutch 81-yard drive that beat Missouri. A couple of touchdowns won’t do it this week.
Oh, yeah, and forcing a couple of turnovers wouldn’t hurt.
Georgia should win and probably will win. But since this Kentucky team keeps doing things it’s not supposed to do, I’ll pick UK, 20-17.
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