If you’re looking up at Kentucky in the SEC standings in the month of March, that’s not the worst thing in the world. If you’re looking up at the Wildcats in the fall, it’s a bad sign.
This is the state of South Carolina football in 2017. For the first time in history, Kentucky is on a three-game winning streak against Gamecocks, and no fact better illustrates the program’s tumble from the top than that. Going from three straight 11-2 seasons to being owned by a basketball powerhouse on the football field is the surest sign of slippage in the SEC East.
“It’s all about connecting the dots, and our players are starting to understand that,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday at SEC media days. “You know, you can’t go from zero to 60. It’s connecting the dots, doing the things necessary, and being consistent and being redundant with that to put yourself in position to win games.”
The problem for the Gamecocks is they are one of those dots the Wildcats have passed on their way to SEC legitimacy. Last year’s game was a particular turning point for both teams. Kentucky came in 1-2 with only a shaky win against New Mexico State under its belt. South Carolina was 2-1 but fell 17-10 in what was the second, and would be the next-to-last, start in Brandon McIlwain’s Gamecock career.
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“We turned the corner with the win against South Carolina and our team, you know, took it just like we talked about, took it one day at a time, one game at a time, and we certainly got better,” Stoops said.
That game was the first career SEC victory for Kentucky quarterback Stephen Johnson, who went on to nail down a starting job once seemingly destined to go to former South Carolina recruiting target Drew Barker.
“Beating a team like South Carolina really boosted our confidence as a team and really helped our fans as well,” Johnson said. “I think we have a great team coming back and we can win a lot, a lot of games, especially in the SEC.”
We won’t have to wait long this year to see if the Gamecocks can break their dubious streak. The Wildcats come to Columbia in Week 3 for their first SEC game. Kentucky likely will be 2-0 coming off early season games against Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky, while the Gamecocks will be coming off a neutral site game against N.C. State and a road game against Missouri.
“I know this about the league, the league’s not backing up,” Stoops said. “Nobody we’re playing is backing up. We’re certainly not backing up. We’re worried about us getting better to put us in a position to contend every week.”
Kentucky has gone from two wins in Stoops’ first season to seven last year. In that same time span, South Carolina has gone from an 11-2 team that beat Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl all the way down to 3-9 on the way to last year’s 6-7 record.
The Gamecocks can’t afford to back up anymore. In fact, they’ve now got to start moving forward again just to get past Kentucky. It’s not a happy thought, but it’s South Carolina’s reality for now.