The on-field success of the Kentucky football team this fall isn’t just a topic of conversation in the Bluegrass.
For the first time in a long time, the Wildcats have been getting national exposure as a result of their hot start to the season, and — until last weekend’s loss to Georgia — their very real shot to win an SEC East title and compete for the league championship.
Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell has made regular mention of the Cats in his columns and features this season, and he’s seeing the kind of progression on the field that Mark Stoops has been talking about since he came to Lexington nearly six years ago.
As Farrell has said in the past, Stoops was selling a vision before he came to UK following the 2012 season, and that message resonated with recruits to form some impressive signing classes early in his tenure. “You have to make that vision come true, or your recruiting is going to stagnate,” Farrell said this week.
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The past two seasons, the Cats got over the postseason hump and qualified for bowl games. This season, they’ll finish second in the SEC East and are favored to go into a bowl game with a 10-2 record.
“The fact that they were playing for the SEC East this year is a big step,” Farrell told the Herald-Leader. “They keep making progress, and that’s what recruits are going to notice. They’re going to take a look at this team — especially on the defensive side of the ball — and they’re going to say, ‘I can compete for an SEC championship with Kentucky.’ And that’s something that you usually don’t hear from recruits. But the way they’ve played this year and put themselves in a favorable situation — even though they lost to Georgia — they were playing for the SEC East, and that’s just going to help recruiting.”
Amid the winning, some followers of UK football recruiting have lamented the lack of “star power” in the Wildcats’ recruiting class, which is nearly complete at 19 commitments and features just two four-star players: legacy defensive back Moses Douglass and the newly committed Wandale Robinson of nearby Western Hills High School in Frankfort.
The Cats’ class — as of Thursday morning — ranked 31st nationally and just 12th in the SEC. Fans have been asking: Shouldn’t a program enjoying its best season in 40 years be seeing more success on the recruiting trail?
“You get a bump from your season the next year,” Farrell said. “There’s always a delayed reaction with recruiting, especially the way recruiting is sped up. When 70 percent of your class is done by the summer — before you’ve even kicked off your first football game — you’re not going to get that reaction to a great season, during that great season. You’ll get a little bit, and I think Wandale is a good example of that. But you’re going to get the dividends the next year.
“So, when you look ahead to 2020, that’s when Kentucky can really look to sell this season and take the next step.”
UK’s coaches have already started hosting recruits from the class of 2020 — and beyond — and that will continue through bowl season and into the winter. In April, they’ll be back on the recruiting trail, and that’s when the on-field success should show itself more with top targets.
“They’re going to go out there selling — not just a vision anymore — but actual results. Probably for the first time under Stoops,” Farrell said. “That will be critical. If they whiff in the spring and the summer, and they don’t have a great class going into next season, then I would worry. But I certainly wouldn’t worry about ‘star power’ right now.”
Another possible boon for the Cats’ future recruiting efforts: A New Year’s Six bowl game.
What seemed a remote possibility to most (all?) college football experts heading into the season is now looking like a very real outcome for these Wildcats, who are favored by nearly a touchdown at Tennessee — where they haven’t won in 34 years — and should be heavy favorites for their final two games of the regular season: at home against Middle Tennessee and on the road at archrival Louisville, a program in total disarray.
Most of the latest national bowl projections — working under the assumption that UK wins all three of those games — place the Cats in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games, the participants of which are selected by the College Football Playoff committee.
The Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl have been common predictions. A berth in either could greatly benefit recruiting.
“That helps,” Farrell said. “Obviously, getting into a bowl itself helps, because of the extra practice reps you get as a team, and that makes you a stronger football team. But if they got into a New Year’s Six game, that’s a status thing. And kids love that. When they’re hosting kids at practice — they’re hosting kids as they prep for a New Year’s Six game — it’s something they can sell. It’s actually a huge deal.
“They have to take care of business. Nothing is guaranteed. This is Kentucky football. It’s not like they’re just going to roll over the next opponents without any issues. They’ve had some very close games this year. I expect they’ll have a couple more close games coming up. … Even a 2-7 Louisville team could be tough, because it’s a rivalry game. They have to focus, make sure they win the games they’re supposed to win. And if they get in that New Year’s Six, that’s just an incredible recruiting tool.”