There’s a buzz going around Kentucky’s campus this week, and for once it’s not because of the basketball team. That season ended three weeks ago.
No, this week that excitement is because of the football team. The Wildcats will host the annual Blue-White spring game this weekend, but rather than play it on Saturday as they traditionally do, they moved it to Friday night and are billing the game as “Friday Night Lights.”
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) April 12, 2017
As of Thursday afternoon, a school spokesperson said 32,000 tickets had already been handed out, and that number will likely grow with walk-ups.
Even if that number does increase by the start of the game, it will be hard to top the 50,000 who showed up in 2013 for Mark Stoops’ first spring game. But when you consider that there was an estimate of just 4,500 fans inside Commonwealth Stadium the year before, it’s remarkable what Stoops has done in the four years he’s been head coach at Kentucky.
It’s no longer just excitement, though. There’s more to the program than just facility upgrades and promises of a better product on the field. That better product finally arrived last season, and for the first time since 2010, the Wildcats made it to a bowl game.
Now there’s an expectation of playing in a bowl game this coming season, and there’s even some talk of Kentucky as a dark-horse contender in the SEC East.
Maybe not. The Wildcats return eight starters on offense, nine starters on defense, and outside of a road trip to Georgia in November, is there a game on their schedule they realistically can’t win? That’s not to say they’re going to finish 11-1 -- they haven’t won more than seven regular-season games since 1984 -- but it’s a good year to draw the two Mississippi teams from the West; plus, both the Florida and Tennessee games are at home.
In a division where there is no dominant team and there hasn’t been for the past couple seasons, maybe Kentucky can make a little noise. It’s no wonder the fans are showing up Friday night for what might as well be a glorified scrimmage.
What will the coaches be looking for?
“Nobody get hurt, and let’s go on down the road and get ready for our first game,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran told reporters this week. “Spring games -- I love them, they’re great. I can’t wait to see all the fans. I love the support. But at the end of the day, the meat and potatoes are done. It’s going to be very base.
“Let’s line up and be 100 percent on assignment. If we don’t get lined up and there’s an MA [missed assignment], we’ve got serious issues. Everybody should be perfect. We should be 100 percent. Effort should be 100 percent. Our technique should be 100 percent.”
The coaches will be more excited when the season opener rolls around Sept. 2 at Southern Miss. But Friday night is not for the coaches as much as it is for the fans. They will get to see star running back Benny Snell in what will be his first spring game. They will get a preview of the defense under first-year coordinator Matt House. Ultimately, it will be their first look at the 2017 team.
Friday’s spring game is the football equivalent to Midnight Madness, and as long as Kentucky keeps winning, it should continue to generate a similar buzz around campus.