Kentucky Has Gone from SEC Doormat to Doorstep of the College Football Playoff

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystOctober 28, 2018

Kentucky QB Terry Wilson
Kentucky QB Terry WilsonJamie Squire/Getty Images

It took a questionable pass interference call from an out-of-position official, an untimed down and a perfect pass from a quarterback who had been benched earlier in the half, but No. 12 Kentucky's improbable quest for a spot in the College Football Playoff lives on after its 15-14 comeback win over Missouri.

Benny Snell Jr. has been sensational at running back for the Wildcats this season, but this was not his day. He finished with just 67 rushing yards. As a result, Kentucky scored three points in the first 54 minutes. It looked like the dream season had come to an end when the offense got stuffed on a fourth-down attempt at the Missouri 3 midway through the fourth quarter.

As has become the norm in SEC play, though, elite defense kept the Wildcats in a game the offense had no business winning.

Missouri got the ball eight times in the second half and did not register a single first down.

Let me say that again: Missouriwhich scored at least 29 points and gained at least 393 yards against every non-Alabama opponent it had faced this seasondidn't get a single first down in the final 30 minutes against Kentucky. This defense is for real.

It was three-and-out after three-and-out until Lynn Bowden Jr. took one of those punts to the house, bringing the Wildcats back to within striking distance.

Then the unlikeliest CFP contender snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the unlikeliest way: Terry Wilson went 6-of-6 through the air in a game-winning touchdown drive that—after a first-play sack—covered 88 yards in barely a minute.

That's the same Terry Wilson who was 3-of-9 in the entire game against Vanderbilt last week. It's the same quarterback who had yet to throw for more than 163 yards in a game this season. And yes, it's the same dude who got yanked after Kentucky's first drive of the second half, only to return in the fourth quarter when it became abundantly clear that Gunnar Hoak wasn't doing any better.

The odds of Wilson orchestrating that season-saving drive were slim to none, but his success was a microcosm of this entire fall for Big Blue Nation.

Perhaps we should have realized back in Week 2 that something special was brewing. (Or should we call it "distilling" since it's Kentucky?) That's when the Wildcats won a road game over Florida, snapping a 31-year losing streak against the Gators.

Kentucky didn't just win that game, either. The Wildcats dominated the battle in the trenches and manhandled a team that had beaten them by at least 30 points in six of the previous 10 meetings.

Soon-to-be first-round draft pick Josh Allen and the rest of the Cats have been flexing their muscles on defense ever since. No opponent has scored more than 20 points against the Wildcats, and half of their opponents have been held to 10 points or fewer.

Quite the remarkable turnaround from just one season ago.

Kentucky LB Josh Allen
Kentucky LB Josh AllenAndy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky allowed at least 20 points in each of its final 10 games last year. Missouriwhich scored 14 points and had 249 yards of total offense on Saturday—more than doubled both of those marks against yesteryear's Wildcats, scoring 34 points with 568 yards. Their defense was a doormat over the latter half of the season.

Yet, here we arewith the season's first College Football Playoff rankings just over the horizon—wondering if 7-1 Kentucky might be able to win a gigantic home game against Georgia next week and secure the SEC East title.

Who can honestly say they saw that coming?

In most years, football in Lexington is just a distraction until the real attraction begins. Kentucky is arguably the most successful program in college basketball history, but the football program hasn't won eight games in a season since 2007, hasn't won nine games since 1984 and hasn't won an outright conference championship since 1950.

With a defense like this, though, this team just might mess around and win it all.

It's beyond unlikely. The Wildcats need to beat Georgia next week just for the right to face Alabama (or LSU) in the SEC Championship Game. And they need to beat that team to get into the playoff, at which point they would need to win two more games against the likes of Clemson, Notre Dame or Oklahoma.

But heaven knows we've seen Alabama and LSU win national championships with impenetrable D, a Heisman-caliber running back and a mediocre-at-best quarterback.  

Why not UK?

         

Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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