Kentucky football takes its show on the road for the first time this season on Saturday night at South Carolina. Given what we went through last fall, it will be different. Much different.
There will be fans. Lots of fans. After the coronavirus pandemic forced either limited or no attendance in 2020, SEC fan bases are out in full force for 2020. Most seats are filled. Crowds are loud. Mask advisories are largely ignored.
It will be the same at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia for Shane Beamer’s first conference home game as the South Carolina coach. The Gamecock fan base loves night games. “Sandstorm” blasts through the loud speakers. The Gamecock shrieks its amplified rooster crow long into the dark Palmetto night. For visitors, it can be annoying and intimidating all at the same time.
“I got the headsets on, so I don’t hear any of that,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said on Monday.
Lucky him. Truth be told, Stoops has found success at South Carolina. As UK coach, he’s 2-2 at Williams-Brice. In fact, it’s the home to one of his biggest breakthroughs, the 26-22 victory on Sept. 12, 2015, over Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks that snapped a 22-game Kentucky road losing streak. Less than a month later, after a 45-24 loss at LSU, Spurrier hung up his coaching visor.
Kentucky repeated the road feat in 2017, besting Stoops’ friend Will Muschamp and Company 23-13 in Columbia. That was an important early-season victory in what turned out to be the second of what is now five straight bowl seasons under the current Kentucky coach.
If Stoops can block out the noise, UK quarterback Will Levis might not be as fortunate. Saturday will be the first SEC road start for the Penn State transfer. After last week’s 28-23 squeaker of a win over FCS school Chattanooga, Levis said he was looking forward to the challenge. He posted to social media that he’s got “Sandstorm” by Darude on repeat all week.
Levis won’t be alone. Saturday will mark the first taste of life on the SEC road for UK’s 2020 freshman class as well as this year’s newcomers. COVID-19 robbed them of the opportunity a year ago.
“I’m not going to overdo it but they have to understand,” Stoops said Monday. “I could go to the game two times ago (2017). We go down there first play of the game, bam (a 68-yard touchdown reception by South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel) and the place erupts. (Then) we throw an interception the first possession.”
After that, however, Kentucky settled in and built a 20-6 lead. “They just need to understand that, ‘Hey, if we get hit on the chin you gotta stand back up and play the next play,’” the UK coach said.
So how have SEC teams handled fans-are-back road games in 2021? So far, league road teams are 3-5. South Carolina has one of those victories, clipping East Carolina 20-17 on Sept. 11 in Greenville. Vanderbilt won at Colorado State that same Saturday. No. 1 Alabama won 31-29 at Florida last Saturday.
As for other SEC road games, Missouri lost at Kentucky and South Carolina lost at Georgia. It’s too early to compare the numbers to 2019, the last year with a full grandstand, when the road team posted a 42.3 winning percentage in SEC games.
— John Clay (@johnclayiv) September 20, 2021
As UK coach, Stoops’ true road conference win percentage is 24.2. He’s 8-25, but that includes a 6-11 mark over the last four years. Career-wise, Stoops has won twice each at South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri. He also owns wins at Florida and Tennessee.
His last trip to South Carolina was not pleasant, however, a 24-7 loss in 2019. And for Kentucky to have the season it wants to have in 2021, it needs to return to conquering Columbia. Even with UK as a six-point favorite, that won’t be easy. Winning on the road in the SEC is never easy. Having home fans in the stands — loud fans — won’t make it any easier.
Kentucky at South Carolina
When: 7 p.m.
Records: UK 3-0 (1-0 SEC); South Carolina 2-1 (0-1 SEC)