LEXINGTON, Ky. — Try to wrap your mind around this: We're days away from seeing Kentucky play in maybe the most important game of the college football season.
In November. With a championship on the line.
"We're not a basketball school anymore," says star tailback Benny Snell Jr.
If you don't believe it, pull up a chair and spend some time with the Mouth That Roars. Nothing is sacred. Not the school's legendary basketball team (he loves them, and they love him back, but it's his time now). Not the NCAA (time to pony up). And, most of all, not those football programs (you know who you are) that ignored his monster high school career and recruited someone else.
Not that it didn't all turn out for the best, anyway.
"Every time I run the ball, I'm thinking, Oh yeah, you don't think I'm good enough? Watch this," Snell says. "They're all going to pay."
Next up: Georgia.
The No. 9 Wildcats and No. 6 Bulldogs both enter the game 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the SEC, with only one remaining conference game each after this one, so the winner will clinch the SEC East Division and a spot in the SEC Championship Game (because it will own the tiebreaker). And the loser…
"I'm not even thinking about that," Snell says. He stops, and he knows what's coming next. The man whose catchphrase—"Snell Yeah!"—was copyrighted for him by the university may as well answer that lingering question before it's asked.
"Can we beat Georgia? Snell Yeah!"
"Biggest game ever. Biggest event in the history of our beautiful stadium," he says. "It's going to be loud, and we're going to feel the love all the way down on the field. This is why we came to Kentucky—to change the way people think about the football program."
Kentucky has never played in the SEC Championship Game, has never won more than 11 games in a season and hasn't won an SEC championship outright since 1950, when a guy named Bear Bryant roamed its sidelines.
The program that has won double-digit games just twice in its 102 previous seasons is in position for a magical run that could redefine the way the nation perceives Kentucky football. And it's thanks in large part to Snell, who ranks among the national leaders in rushing yards (935) and rushing touchdowns (nine) and will likely be one of the first running backs selected in either the 2019 or 2020 NFL draft.
Snell spoke at length with Bleacher Report recently about Kentucky football, playing meaningful games in November and much more.
Bleacher Report: How in the world did a star high school player from Ohio (4,404 rushing yards, 65 total TDs) get to Kentucky?
Benny Snell Jr.: Growing up, Ohio State was all I watched. I was a Big Ten guy. I wanted to play for Ohio State, but they didn't even recruit me. I was a Jim Tressel guy. He was the man, the head coach. Then Urban Meyer came into the mix and things got different. I always kept that in the back of my mind: Ohio State didn't want me. Somehow, some way, I'm going to make them wish they had me. Maybe we'll play them this year, who knows?
B/R: You were a 3-star recruit. A lot of guys don't get caught up in that stuff. Why do you take it so personally?
Snell: Because it's all politics, man. I would go to running back camps, and I'm the first in line and I'm making sure I'm doing everything right. Finishing drills, not dropping balls, everything that needed to be done to be the best guy there. And I was the best guy there. Mike Weber (Ohio State), Miles Sanders (Penn State)—I remember those guys vividly at those camps. I was thinking, I'm better than these guys, and they're getting all the awards afterward, because they were the 5-star guys and they were already committed to the football powers. The politics of the game takes the fun out of it. I'm there working my ass off, and they didn't show me—or any other 3-star guys—any love.
B/R: What politics? The recruiting analysts who choose who gets five stars and who gets three?
B/R: Who are those guys, anyway? And what are their credentials?
Snell: Exactly. Why do they get to say who gets five stars and who gets three stars? That whole rating system at the camps, it's like you're put through a slave process. It's like, 'Who's the best slave? He's good at speed, well, then he gets a 5-star. He's not? Well, you get a 3-star.' They just line you up and put stars on your head, and that's what you are. Nobody is putting a star on me. I'm a 10-star. You can't put a rank on me. You can't put a rank on love of the game.
Nobody is putting a star on me. I'm a 10-star. You can't put a rank on me. You can't put a rank on love of the game. — Benny Snell
B/R: So these recruiting analysts actually play a role in the process? Why would a coach not want to do his own background work?
Snell: From my experience, they're all focusing on the high guys, just to see how good they are. They have the 5-star quarterbacks throwing to the 5-star wide receivers, who are covered by the 5-star defensive backs. They let them battle and go at it. I understand that, but who's to say who's good? Why not put a 3-star against a 5-star and see what happens? There's so much hidden talent all over the camps that people don't see.
B/R: Now a bunch of 3-stars are one game away from winning the SEC East Division.
Snell: Exactly. I always wondered: What if I went to a big-time school? Would I be put through a process of not playing much but winning? Or would I want to be here and contribute and make something out of nothing? That's what I want. You put me on a nobody team and let me play and do what I can do to make us better. That's what we want. We want to change the culture around here. The days of us being an underdog team are over.
B/R: What makes this Kentucky team different than all the rest that tried and failed?
Snell: There are no vampires on this team. Guys that bring us down. We had those in prior years. Guys that didn't want to practice, guys that didn't want to play hard in the games. Guys that were saving themselves for the next level. If you're a young guy, that's not what you should be looking up to. We eliminated those guys and we're all upward now. We decided before the season it was time to put it all together and play our best ball—and never feel again like we missed out on something.
B/R: Speaking of missing out on something, you're at a major school, you're a star player and a good-looking guy with a big smile and a bigger personality—how frustrating is it that the NCAA wants you to use your athletic skills but not marketing skills?
Snell: I think about that all the time. It's like my mouthpiece thing. I go on ESPN and they do a GameDay feature on me and my spinner mouthpiece that makes a noise when you breathe. I know that company has to see what I did. So many fans and players on other teams bought those mouthpieces after that. They have to be seeing how much exposure I gave them.
B/R: How much money must they be making off that—and more specifically, off you and your decision to not only wear their mouthpiece but also show it during an interview on national television?
Snell: A ton of money. All of it off me. ESPN heard about my mouthpiece, so they were like, "Hey, get that, and we'll get it on camera." So I put it on and breathe through it, and it spins and makes the whoosh noise, and everyone loves it. Free advertising. It just doesn't make sense. How can the NCAA not see that? You have to go buy your mouthpiece from the mouthpiece company, and then they sell more mouthpieces because you're wearing their mouthpiece? And you don't get a dime from that. Is that fair?
B/R: Imagine if those mouthpieces had your signature on them or were called the Benny Snell Spinner.
Snell: It would be disgusting how much money I could make. And why not? These are a player's prime moneymaking years. We are only going to be this young with this much ability and in great health for so long. Why not take advantage of it? Your brand is so important, but the way the NCAA deals with it—and doesn't allow you to use it—it takes a lot of potential earning away from players. There are so many great things student-athletes could do, but the process limits us. I'm not just talking money. It's learning how to market yourself, your brand. Learning life skills.
B/R: You said these are your prime years. How much does the game impact your body on a daily basis?
Snell: Sunday mornings, oh my gosh, they are the worst days. After a game, it feels like I got hit by a bus. I'm limping every Sunday for one reason or another. A lot of people don't understand that we put our bodies on the line, our health and well-being, every single play. That's not something you can get over, because the next week, I'm back at it again. That stuff just adds up over time and on different parts of your body. You never really heal. Some of these injuries will last for your life, you know? And the NCAA is worried about me and my personal brand?
B/R: I'm playing devil's advocate here: Many people will say without college football, would you have the ability to play a game and put yourself in position to make money and market yourself? Which comes first?
Snell: If it's not me, it's someone else. That's not my opinion. That's reality. There's always going to be another player looking to use his brand.
B/R: Can you understand how some guys might take shortcuts, might try to take money from agents or shoe representatives?
Snell: I don't know how or why other guys do what they do. I just know my brand is on the line every single day. When you're a student-athlete, you're always under a microscope. Everyone is watching all the time—everything you do. It's how you handle yourself, especially if you're a star. The spotlight is going to be on you, so what are you going to make of it? I've got to take the good route. I want to be a rock star.
The spotlight is going to be on you, so what are you going to make of it? I've got to take the good route. I want to be a rock star. — Benny Snell
B/R: It's not always easy though, is it?
Snell: You're tempted all the time. Just the other day, I was at Chick-fil-A, and a guy saw me and knew who I was. He's in front of me in line and didn't say anything to me. I hear him tell the cashier, "I want to pay for the guy behind me." He tried to get his money out, and I said, "No, man. You can't do that." He tells me I played great this weekend and shakes my hand. He says, "Are you sure?" I told him I'd be happy to take a picture with him or sign something, but he can't do things like that. It's against NCAA rules. That stuff happens all the time. I know guys who would take that, but where I am right now, I don't even want to be close to that.
B/R: Do other student-athletes get that concept?
Snell: Some guys are just living life, and whatever my path is, it happens. But that's not me. You can't think like that. You have to think beyond the present. I've seen things about to go downhill for me, and I make my decision and it goes the right way. I tell the young guys: "You control what you do and who you are and your brand. No one else does." When you start to get the attention, that's when it gets tougher.
B/R: How is this team dealing with newfound fame?
Snell: I'm happy we're getting the attention. We should've had it last year. We should've won 10 games last year, but there were just little things holding us back. That's not the case this year. We're not a basketball school anymore. We're changing this thing around in Lexington.
B/R: That may not go over so well in this basketball-crazy city.
Snell: Like it or not, it's big, and it's where we're headed. Everybody is in on it—and so are the basketball players. They're pumped for us. I'm walking to class, and people are stopping me and saying, "Thank you for making us a football school." I take that as a big compliment. We're not a basketball school; we're a powerhouse school. I talk to the basketball guys all the time about it. They're all for it. They want us to elevate our game too. They're supportive. And you know what? They'll be in the stands for the Georgia game yelling louder than anyone.