Competing in SEC is no easy task

Published 1:01 am Friday, October 13, 2023

By Keith Taylor

Kentucky Today

After Kentucky’s disappointing 51-13 loss to top-ranked Georgia on Saturday, coach Mark Stoops made no excuses for his team’s poor performance in Athens.

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Stoops, who has guided Kentucky to unprecedented heights in his 11-year tenure, knows it will take more than past success to keep climbing the proverbial ladder. More monumental wins and more money to help fund the school’s Name, Image and Likeness machine are among the needs for the Wildcats to compete with some of the top football programs in the nation, most of which compete in the Southeastern Conference.

On his radio show Monday night, Stoops said supporters of the football program needed to “pony up” more money in order to compete with the upper-echelon teams in the SEC, like Georgia. Already one of the premier leagues in the nation, the conference will get stronger and tougher with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma beginning next season. The elimination of divisions also will prove to be a tougher challenge for teams such as Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi State.

Stoops likely was venting, with the embarrassing loss to Georgia still being an open wound, yet he may have been telling the hard truth when he answered the caller’s question on Monday night. However, prior to NIL, the Wildcats were still having a hard time keeping up with the elite teams in the SEC such as Alabama, LSU and Georgia.

Although money is a factor in this modern day when it comes to recruiting elusive talent to campus, winning football games also remains the top factor. Wins, combined with postseason appearances, make a program attractive to top talent. Money helps, but winning matters the most when it comes to getting players on campus who have dreams of playing in the NFL.

Stoops has taken the program to levels not enjoyed since the late Paul “Bear” Bryant was at the helm, before schools started playing football under the lights. Kentucky has made seven straight bowl appearances under Stoops and has won at least 10 games in two of the past five years. The Wildcats have beaten SEC East rival Florida for three consecutive seasons, which is no small feat.

The transfer portal also has been beneficial to Kentucky, especially during the past five years. Former quarterback Will Levis gave supporters a lot to cheer for in his two years with the Wildcats after joining UK from Penn State. Current running back and Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis has provided big numbers in the backfield this season. This year’s quarterback, Devin Leary, brought experience in the pocket when he transferred from North Carolina State.

Recruiting the best and pooling from the transfer portal are part of the recruiting process, but you can’t get them all. That’s why it still remains important for programs like Kentucky to look for diamond-in-the-rough recruits to mix in with elite and experienced talent.

But in the deep SEC, having a top 20 recruiting class may keep you no better than top 10 in the league. Stoops has found some diamonds but the Georgia’s and Alabama’s stockpile talent like they have their own diamond mines.

The Wildcats haven’t fully arrived under Stoops, but they’re well on their way. Sometimes it takes a little patience which, like every other fanbase in America, comes in small doses at Kentucky. Asking the fans to “pony up” isn’t the answer and may have just been a knee-jerk reaction on a question that clearly got under Stoops’ skin.

Finding a way to defeat Georgia, Alabama and LSU isn’t something that began when NIL started. But they have seemed to leapfrog over Florida, a longtime nemesis. It’s a start and when competing against the toughest conference in the country it’s a good one,

Kentucky is clearly in the middle of the pack in the SEC. But that’s better than being at the bottom. Be patient and enjoy the victories as they come.