Let’s be honest, Kentucky football’s real season starts Saturday and its offense looks unprepared.
It’s the reason head coach Mark Stoops was gritting his teeth in the postgame press conference after the Cats’ 35-3 victory over Akron on Saturday night.
“Offensively, a lot of frustration again,” Stoops said.
It’s the reason offensive coordinator Liam Coen, four days after a two-day hospital stay following a “medical episode” suffered Sunday, could feel his blood pressure rising.
“At the end of the day,” said a visibly upset Coen, “if we don’t start executing this stuff is going to bite us in the butt when we play better football teams.”
Yes, the Cats are 3-0. They took care of business on the scoreboard of their preconference schedule. They scored five touchdowns Saturday night, averaged 9.2 yards per play, and produced 10 plays of 20-plus yards, including scores of 22, 55 and 58 yards.
Here’s the rub: SEC defenses aren’t going to give up those kinds of explosive plays. SEC defenses rarely find themselves chasing running backs. They don’t allow receivers daylight. They’re too fast, too talented, too well-coached.
And Kentucky faces the first of eight consecutive SEC defenses when it travels to Nashville on Saturday. It’s not just the conference opener for Stoops’ squad, it’s the first road game of the season. Compared to the degree of difficulty from the previous trio of opponents — two MAC teams and an FCS foe — Saturday is an entirely different challenge.
Yes, I know, it’s Vanderbilt. The league’s perennial Dore-mat. After a 2-0 start, Clark Lea’s club has suffered consecutive losses at Wake Forest (36-20) and UNLV (40-37 in a Saturday night heartbreaker in the desert). But this also the same Vanderbilt that surprised Kentucky last season 24-21 at Kroger Field.
The Cats could fall to the Commodores again if their offense doesn’t find a way to fix the mistakes that have muddied these first three games. Pre-snap penalties. Dropped passes. Errant shotgun snaps. Miscommunications with receivers. Missed blocks. Holding penalties. Fumbles. Poor pass protection. All those little things that can collectively morph into a big loss.
Examples: Devin Leary’s lone interception Saturday came when the quarterback and receiver Dane Key were not on the same page. A 53-yard field goal attempt by Alex Raynor became a Wilson Berry punt after the Cats were whistled for a delay of game penalty. A first-and-goal at the Akron 7-yard line became a second-and-goal from the Akron 28 when Jager Burton’s shotgun snap sailed over Leary’s head for a 21-yard loss.
“We just shoot ourselves in the foot a lot,” Leary said.
Said Stoops, “We can’t do that.”
No, they can’t. Did you see Florida on Saturday night? The Gators whipped 11th-ranked Tennessee 29-16 in The Swamp. They’ll bring a long memory to Kroger Field on Sept. 30, eager to put a hard stop to a two-game losing streak against the Cats. After that, Kentucky travels to Georgia. Kirby Smart’s team has also started slowly, but it’s still Georgia. The two-time defending national champions. The Bulldogs are the lone SEC East team Stoops has yet to beat.
What has magnified Kentucky’s September struggles is the knowledge of how good this offense can be. When on point, Leary is a thread-the-needle passer. Running back and Vandy transfer Ray Davis has exceeded expectations. Tayvion Robinson is the Tayvion Robinson UK expected last season. We know what sophomore wideouts Barion Brown and Dane Key can do.
“We put it all together, they’re can be a lot of good things,” Stoops said.
So maybe the Cats have played down to their competition. Maybe they have found it difficult to focus against a soft early slate. Maybe they’re too comfortable in the friendly confines of home. Maybe they’ve been lulled to sleep.
If so, they’d better wake up. Right now. That alarm sound means the start of play in an unforgiving conference. Right now, the Cats don’t look ready to answer the bell.