Why Kentucky football players think they can return to Atlanta for SEC title game

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal
Kentucky players pose for a photo after a NCAA college football game in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl against Iowa, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.

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ATLANTA — Kentucky football recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow may have already taken to Twitter this week to push back at one SEC reporter’s perception of the Wildcats, but UK’s representatives at SEC Media Days Wednesday were not as quick to embrace the annual disrespect angle.

That does not mean they are not focused on proving doubters wrong though.

“We know what our goals are, which is to be back here in December in Atlanta,” quarterback Will Levis said. “We break it down on that, everything we do. We just want to make sure everything we do is in line with that goal.”

Few outside the Kentucky locker room will pick the Wildcats to win the SEC East championship.

Since the league split into two divisions in 1992, Kentucky has never reached the conference championship game. The East is home to defending national champion Georgia, which has won the division in four of the last five seasons.

Meanwhile Tennessee and South Carolina, entering the second season under new coaches, are the subject of summer buzz. Kentucky has routinely been included in preseason Top 25 rankings released this summer but often between at least two division opponents. A panel of USA TODAY network SEC beat reporters picked Kentucky third in the East earlier this week.

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But confidence remains high in the UK locker room, thanks in large part to the return of Levis, who is widely projected as a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL draft.

“I came back to win,” said super-senior linebacker DeAndre Square. “I really want this SEC championship. A lot of the guys do, too. That’s the focus. We have player-led meetings all the time, and I always say if your mind is not on the SEC championship, don’t even come to practice. That’s the standard.”

Marrow’s tweets came in response to a segment of the Paul Finebaum Show recorded in Atlanta earlier this week.

During the show, SEC reporter Michael Bratton cast doubt on Levis’s status as a possible first-round pick and projected Kentucky to finish fifth in the East. Finebaum followed up by casting doubt on Levis as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

“I have to laugh at some of these SEC reporters,” Marrow tweeted, tagging Bratton’s account. “(Levis) is a good QB. Did you ever think that maybe he wants to be a top 10 pick or maybe work on his craft a little more? I really appreciate you saying we will finish in 5th place. LOL, you are real funny bro.”

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Square joked that he would let Marrow handle the public responses to any perceived disrespect. Stoops declined to follow his associate head coach’s lead in calling out specific media pundits but brought up the 10-80-10 rule he applies to his own program.

“10% is elite, 80% is somewhere in the middle and 10% below average,” Stoops said with a laugh. “You think that holds true in the media? I don’t know if some people understand that. I wonder what percent they’re in.”

Levis, Square and offensive guard Kenneth Horsey represented Kentucky at the annual preseason media event, held at the College Football Hall of Fame, a short walk from Mercedes Benz Stadium where the SEC championship game will be placed in December.

All three players spoke of the desire to keep their teammates motivated to make sure this would not be their only trip to Atlanta this season.

Accomplish that goal, and any worries about preseason disrespect will be a distant memory.

“I prefer to have people talk about you at the end of the year, rather than the beginning of the year,” Stoops said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

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Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ