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The late Paul “Bear” Bryant is the only college football coach in history to cast a significant shadow over three major programs for several decades apiece.
It took four decades for another Alabama coach to match Bryant’s six national championships from 1961-79. Nick Saban won his sixth for the Crimson Tide last season.
No Texas A&M coach has gone undefeated since Bryant went 9-0-1 overall and 6-0 for the Southwest Conference title in 1956. It took 11 years for the next SWC title in 1967 at 7-4 and 6-1 under coach Gene Stallings, who played on Bryant’s SWC title team and coached under him at Alabama. Jackie Sherrill, who played and coached for Bryant at Alabama, and R.C. Slocum won multiple SWC titles and Slocum won a Big 12 title, but neither ever had an undefeated season.
And no Kentucky coach has won 11 games in a season since Bryant went 11-1 in 1950 and won the school’s only SEC title at 5-1 before a 13-7 win over No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Coach Fran Curci tied for the SEC title in 1977 at 10-1 and 6-0, but that season does not count, according to the NCAA, because the Wildcats were on probation.
Present Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is more than halfway to Bryant’s bar after pummeling LSU 42-21 on Saturday for the Wildcats’ first 6-0 start since that 1950 season.
“It did mean a little something to me because it’s been a lot of hard work for a lot of years,” Stoops said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference. “However, you enjoy it for a few hours, and then it’s back to reality.”
No. 11 Kentucky (6-0, 4-0 SEC) plays at No. 1 Georgia (6-0, 4-0) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS in an early SEC East playoff game. The Bulldogs are a 21.5-point favorite by FanDuel.
“I got to wake up the next morning and prepare for Georgia,” Stoops said. “So it was really a short-lived celebration. It kind of gets your head screwed on straight very quickly.”
Stoops is in his ninth season in Lexington. Bryant coached the Wildcats for eight seasons from 1946-53. Before the 1954 season, Bryant took the Texas A&M job, partly because he grew tired of second class status at Kentucky with basketball coach Adolph Rupp, whose national titles in 1948, ’49 and ’51 overshadowed Bryant’s accomplishments. And there were plenty.
Bryant took Kentucky to three straight traditional New Year’s Day bowls — the Orange (21-13 loss to Santa Clara), Sugar (13-7 win over Oklahoma) and Cotton (20-7 win over TCU) — through the 1949-51 seasons. Kentucky has played on New Year’s Day only twice since: after the 1998 and 2018 seasons.
Stoops will take Kentucky to an unprecedented sixth straight bowl this season, and he has a strong shot at a New Year’s Day-type affair. If he somehow gets by Georgia, the Wildcats would likely finish 12-0 for the best season in school history and play in the SEC Championship Game for the first time with a shot at the College Football Playoff.
Kentucky will likely be favored in its games after Georgia — at Mississippi State, Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, New Mexico State and at Louisville. This would best Kentucky’s previous best start, which was 10-0 in 1950 before a 7-0 loss at No. 9 Tennessee as the No. 3 team. If Kentucky loses to Georgia but stays in the game, it could still reach the CFP at a Bear-matching 11-1.
“Going into the season, I knew we were headed into some good things,” Stoops said. “But I had no idea how that was going to correlate to victories. I’m glad we’re off to this start, but I’d like to finish extremely strong.”
And Stoops has done all this at a program that was coming off three straight losing seasons when he arrived in 2013, including a 2-10 and 0-8 mark in 2012. He went 2-10, then 5-7 twice prior to four straight winning seasons. He dipped to 5-6 last season, but with a 23-21 win over North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl.
Stoops has been here before. He had a chance to be 6-0 in 2018, but the Bryant shadow emerged then, and the No. 13 Wildcats lost 20-14 in overtime at unranked Texas A&M in coach Jimbo Fisher’s first season. The Wildcats then lost 34-17 at No. 6 Georgia and were upset 24-7 at unranked Tennessee as the No. 11 team before finishing 10-3. Still, that was Kentucky’s first double-digit win season — barring the probation season of 1977 — since Bryant.
“Well, it’s like strapping yourself in a room with cement walls and running your head into it every day for about six years,” he said three years ago of his 5-0 start. “It does feel good, though.”
It will feel even better this year if the season ends, as it surely could, in the Playoff. Then, look for Stoops to do what Bryant did — leave.
And do not be surprised if that destination is LSU.
SATURDAY’S GAMES (All times central with FanDuel point spreads.)
Auburn at No. 17 Arkansas (4.5-point favorite), 11 a.m., CBS; No. 20 Florida (11.5 favorite) at LSU, 11 a.m., ESPN; No. 21 Texas A&M (9.5 favorite) at Missouri, 11 a.m., SEC Network; No. 11 Kentucky at No. 1 Georgia (21.5 favorite), 2:30 p.m., CBS; Vanderbilt at South Carolina (18.5 favorite), 3 p.m., SEC Network; No. 5 Alabama (16.5 favorite) at Mississippi State, 6 p.m., ESPN; No. 13 Ole Miss (2.5 favorite) at Tennessee, 6:30 p.m., SEC Network.
1. Georgia (6-0, 4-0). 2. Kentucky (6-0, 4-0). 3. Texas A&M (4-2, 1-2). 4. Alabama (5-1, 2-1). 5. Florida (4-2, 2-2). 6. Ole Miss (4-1, 1-1). 7. Arkansas (4-2, 1-2). 8. Mississippi State (3-2, 1-1). 9. Auburn (4-2, 1-1). 10. Tennessee (4-2, 2-1). 11. LSU (3-3, 1-2). 12. Missouri (3-3, 0-2). 13. South Carolina (3-3, 0-3). 14. Vanderbilt (2-4, 0-2).
STAT OF THE WEEK
1-24 – The record of former Nick Saban assistant coaches as head coaches against Saban after Texas A&M and coach Jimbo Fisher beat Alabama and Saban 41-38 on Saturday.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Jimbo Fisher’s agent robbed Texas A&M.”
-Headline over Oct. 3 USA TODAY columnist Dan Wolken’s piece concerning Fisher’s new contract that goes from $7.5 million a year to $9.5 million a year in January that was awarded after his 9-1 season in 2020. Six days after that column, Fisher’s Aggies beat No. 1 Alabama 41-38 for his second top five upset in two seasons. A&M also beat No. 4 Florida 41-38 last year.