ATLANTA — Kentucky has heard it ad nauseam by now: questions that is, surrounding the nation’s longest winning streak, one Kentucky finds itself on the wrong side of, and a streak which continues to find new ways to break the hearts and spirits of the Wildcats faithful.
And the 2018 iteration of SEC Media Days was no different, as coach Mark Stoops and the three Wildcats players in attendance were once again harangued with inquiries as to the particulars of UK’s narrow and controversial 28-27 defeat at the hands of the Gators in 2017.
“I always look forward to that annual question here,” Stoops said with a self-deprecating laugh. “First three or four years, I really wasn’t concerned about it. I’m trying to build a culture at Kentucky and win games and get in position, but you do hear it. You can’t hide from the elephant in the room: it’s been a long time, we need to beat Florida, but we need to beat a lot of teams on our schedule.”
But the fact remains that a win over Florida would cement the half-decade of improvement in Lexington under Stoops.
“Beating Florida is something that would change our season for us,” running back Benny Snell said. “But we’re taking the season a game at a time, we’ve got Central Michigan in week one to worry about.
“We’re getting better each year. I can see the work paying off.”
For a Wildcats program that has tied or improved its record in each of the last five seasons, the contingent emphasized the focus is on the future and not the 31 years of futility against Florida.
“Obviously you’ve got to take the good with the bad, because last year I did think for the majority of the game that people thought we were the better team that game,” senior tight end C.J. Conrad said. “We played extremely well, but just didn’t finish the way we wanted to. You don’t want to dwell on it, but you also want it to motivate you.”
Dwell on it is something many have done, and that’s where Stoops comes in. Whereas a loss to the Gators in the past often preceded a downward spiral, the Wildcats rallied in the middle stretch of the 2017 season to become bowl eligible despite a three-game losing streak to conclude the year.
“You can’t, when you’re a coach like that, (Stoops) couldn’t come in on Monday after we lost to Florida and just act like our season is over. It’s such an early loss in the season. Obviously it stung, but coach Stoops did a very good job defusing it at the time.
“It’s obviously something that we’re thinking about, and it’s motivated us all summer.”
With all the emphasis on one game, it’s easy to forget the Wildcats season isn’t determined in the second week of the season. But considering Ronald Reagan held the office of U.S. President the last time Kentucky prevailed over the Gators, sometimes it can feel like the matchup with Florida is the focal point of each season. At least until Kentucky bucks the trend and comes out on top.
“We’ve got to take care of week one first obviously, but we are extremely excited,” Conrad said. “No one wants to lose to the same team 30 years in a row, and that’s something that we know and we’re going to hopefully take care of it this year.”