The Wildcats have earned widespread public praise from “The Ol’ Ball Coach,” Steve Spurrier.
Typically an easy target for Spurrier’s renowned trolling, Kentucky (3-1, 1-1 SEC) has seemingly earned sincere respect from the Gamecocks’ boss entering Saturday night's game at Commonwealth Stadium.
Kentucky “very easily could be 4-0, lost a triple-overtime game down in the Swamp,” Spurrier said during the SEC coaches’ weekly teleconference.
“But they’re a very good team this year. I think Mark Stoops and his staff have done a super job in just his second year of having a team very capable of beating about everybody they play. It should be a heckuva game up there.”
And with that, countless jaws may require being lifted from floors across the Big Blue Nation.
Traditionally, Spurrier has good reason to write off the Cats. After all, his 20 wins against UK as coach at Florida and South Carolina is the highest total by one coach versus another program in the FBS.
The Cats own just one win against Spurrier in his career, a 31-28 triumph at Commonwealth Stadium in 2010. UK trailed by 18 at the half, but rallied from behind to edge the No. 10 Gamecocks on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Mike Hartline to Randall Cobb with 1:15 remaining.
There have been several other close calls, including last year’s 35-28 game in Columbia, but The Ol’ Ball Coach has usually come away smiling. Sometimes laughing. His Florida squads infamously beat the Bill Curry-led Cats 73-7 in 1994 and 65-0 in 1996. They also won 24-20 in 1993 despite watching his quarterbacks throw seven interceptions.
The major culprit in those type of blowouts was a glaring speed mismatch, something Spurrier says does not exist any longer thanks to UK’s impressive recruiting and player development under Stoops. The Cats have drastically upgraded their athleticism by reeling in two consecutive strong signing classes, including Scout's No. 21 haul this year.
“Their strength and conditioning coaches have done an excellent job of getting that team fast and quick,” Spurrier said. “They play fast, too. Their coaching staff, Mark Stoops and his staff, do an excellent job. This is only his second year there, and they play a lot differently than maybe the Kentucky teams of 10 years ago or 15 years ago. They’re a fast team, no question.”
In the past, Kentucky week on Spurrier’s calendar may have felt like an open date, but that’s no longer the case. He noted that the Gamecocks will need another strong defensive performance like they had against Missouri, albeit in a 21-20 loss, to have a chance to leave Lexington with a win.
“If we’re going to have a chance to beat Kentucky, our defense really has to play well,” said Spurrier, hinting that he knows UK is going to play well on that side of the ball. The Cats are currently ranked No. 5 in the SEC in total defense, have surrendered only 15.5 points per game, and have yet to allow a first-half touchdown this season.
“I actually think that they're doing a lot of things that Oklahoma does also,” said Spurrier, a longtime colleague and friend of Stoops’ brother, Bob. “Obviously the brothers meet together a lot in the offseason and so forth and they have a nice scheme of things.“Their team looks good. They look good in their uniforms. They play fast and hustle, which is sort of defensive background coach that (Stoops) is."