Welcome to this week’s edition of Cookin’ Up the Competition! We have the University of Kentucky Wildcats on the slate this weekend and this is a trip that hopefully pump some life back into this season with a win over Mark Stoops’ boys in blue. Our gracious contributor for this edition is Will Marshall from A Sea of Blue, and he was kind enough to share with me a small window into his football mind. We also had a nice conversation on their site, you can check it out here. So, here’s six questions with a Kentucky guy:
1) Everyone knows Kentucky is basketball-dominant school. Do you think the football team will ever be capable of catching up in terms of popularity?
“I seriously doubt it. The basketball program is far too ingrained in the culture of the state. It has a decorated history of success including leading in all-time wins, all-time winning percentage, and boasts eight national championships. There's a long list of famous players, and Kentucky fans tend to memorialize the ones from decades ago to the ones that only recently graduated. Aside from some dark years in the 1980's, this program has remained consistently at the top of the sport. The way Alabama football gets portrayed by fans, rivals, and media is roughly how I think of Kentucky basketball. It's a monolith that seems like it'd survive a nuclear attack along with the cockroaches and Keith Richards.
There's also a culture of basketball worship in the state that is unusual in the rest of the country outside of North Carolina, Indiana, Kansas, and areas of the northeast. Cable ratings here for college basketball are high months before March Madness. Someone in an Appalachian hollow this winter, who has never step foot west of the Mississippi River, will spend their Wednesday night watching Gonzaga play St. Mary's until 1 AM because they just want to watch good basketball with an eye towards possible UK opponents come tournament time.
That's a steep hill for the football program to climb. An impossible one, really. And that's okay.”
2) A lot of people around Kentucky are talking about this being the year that Kentucky finally takes down State. What do you think the attitude will be around the program if the Wildcats come up empty-handed on Saturday?
“From a fan base perspective it'll be a big blow. A win Saturday night effectively erases the loss to Southern Mississippi, and gives UK a record of 4-3 which most would have expected at this point. A loss means UK has even less margin for error to make a bowl game, and that simply won't do for fans this year. This is Mark Stoops' fourth season, the SEC East is weak again, and his recruiting classes fill the roster. Six wins continues to be the minimum expectation for most.
From a team perspective I'm not quite sure. These are teenagers and generally speaking they bounce back from setbacks pretty quickly. They've got classes, friends, and a social life. They've got distractions while us older folk tend to cling to our bitterness a bit longer. Specifically, I was impressed with how quickly aspects of the team bounced back from truly ugly Florida loss this season. Then they built on their successes a little bit every week since - even playing confidently against Alabama.
I think the players will be fine even if they lose Saturday. The wildcard is the fans not letting them move on which is currently a debate we've been having about the toxicity of fandom in the last few weeks.”
3) Personally, I’ve always seen Kentucky as just another game on the roster and not much more. How do you feel about MSU and Kentucky being matched as cross-divisional ‘rivals’?
“Indifference. It definitely feels like an arranged marriage. I'd be willing to bet most fans on both sides are happy with the practical arrangement even if we aren't sure how we got here and there's a lack of passion.
I guess we could fall back on the basketball rivalry when Stansbury was coaching there, or even the tenuous thread of UK baseball losing Coach Cohen to you guys, but I'm not sure we really have any historical basis to be each others permanent rival besides we were the last two standing when the music stopped playing. Let Auburn-Georgia, LSU-Florida, and 'Bama-Tennessee play each other every year, but I think the rest of us should rotate if that would work schedule-wise.”
4) What players should MSU fans keep an eye out for this weekend on offense? Defense?
“On offense, I'd keep my eyes on UK's running backs. First, Boom Williams is probably UK's best player. He's averaging 7.1 yards/carry this season. He's always been a home run threat, but over time he's gotten much better at trusting his blockers, and not instinctually kicking it outside in the hopes of creating something that turns into a five yard loss. Complimenting Boom is this year's big surprise, at least for me, freshman running back Benny Snell. He's averaging 5.6 yards/carry and has been excellent in short yardage situations. UK likes to get him more carries late in the second half after it's grinded the defense for most of the game. This tactic is entirely predicated on it being a close game for it to be effective.
On defense, I'd point to the handful of sophomores who are making a difference this year. Weakside linebacker Jordan Jones is third in the SEC in tackles despite having a bye week last Saturday. Josh Allen and Denzil Ware are outside linebackers that are UK's best pass-rushers. Finally, safety Mike Edwards is great in run support, and is slowly improving on his coverage skills. Given MSU's spread offense tendencies, these four guys will all have to make one-on-one plays to for the 'Cats to win Saturday.”
5) Whose seat is hotter: Mark Stoops or Dan Mullen?
“I don't think either is on a hot seat. As an outsider, Mullen is having a bad year, but he's previously taken MSU to heights they've never achieved, which is impressive considering how good the SEC West has been of late. The team seemed like it responded at BYU after the Auburn debacle. He doesn't seem like he's lost the locker room.
Some UK fans will disagree with me, but I don't think Stoops is on a hot seat either. He's got a $12 million buy-out if he's fired before December 1st, 2017. On top of that, he's bought some time by beating Vanderbilt and South Carolina (which he's been doing the last two years). His program has stayed clean too.
Stoops' failure is that none of his team's have punched above their weight. That's not enough to be in Lexington long-term, but treading water is enough to keep him around for a fifth season. I think he's already punched his ticket for 2017 barring a player insurrection which seems unlikely at this point.”
6) Prediction time: how do you see this game playing out on Saturday?
“I'm very slightly leaning towards UK winning this game. I think MSU's rush defense was impressive last week against BYU, but UK's running attack is just as good if not a bit better so that match-up will be a wash. I think UK's offense gets some points facing MSU's porous secondary. Watching the Auburn and BYU games I was struck with how open the middle of the field looked, and I think UK's tight ends and slot receivers could have big days. UK's passing offense isn't good, so I don't think this will lead to a bunch of fireworks, but will do enough to move the chains.
On the other side of the ball, I think UK's defense has made progress the last three weeks. UK has also already faced several spread offenses that like shallow crossing routes, RPOs, and zone reads, so in some ways they'll be prepared. I think they'll surrender yards, but MSU's inability to finish drives will force more field goals than touchdowns. UK probably wins that arms race, but I am concerned about MSU creating turnovers against a UK offense prone to being sloppy with the ball.”
UK 21 MSU 20
Bonus: More original mascot: Bulldog or Wildcat?
“I gotta go with Bulldog as it is apparently the oldest animal mascot. It's also the most common. Having said that, the Wildcat is very common itself and pretty uninspiring. We need to revamp our mascots for the sake of diversity and our own entertainment without breaking intellectual property laws. I'm all for more Fightin' Frost Giants, Ragin' Octopuses, Self-Loathing Bloggers, or really any animal from the Nature is Metal subreddit.”