The simmering pan under Mark Stoops’ Kentucky tenure was boiling into a grease fire. After yet another promising season began with an awful start, the familiar refrains erupted, even in a place where football is usually just a water-cooler chat until John Calipari’s latest group of future millionaires takes the court.
This was the year, Stoops said. After coming oh-so-close to a bowl game in the two previous seasons, Kentucky had the team to break that jinx.
The Wildcats lost to Southern Miss. And were drilled 45-7 by an average-at-best Florida team.
Stoops was being advised to pack his stuff.
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“As you’re rebuilding a program, as you’re trying to rebuild a program in the SEC, what you’re here for, it’s nut-cutting time, you know?” Stoops said. “People were tired of hearing, ‘You’re getting better.’ ”
In an age of paying $5-6 million to get rid of a guy, Kentucky wanted results. There’s only so many “it’s gonna come” speeches fans can listen to before they want to see it happen.
But in 2016, it did. It finally did.
A win over South Carolina, Kentucky’s third straight in the series, started a run of four wins in five games and the Wildcats were once again on the cusp of bowl eligibility, with Austin Peay later in the season. Forget a bowl – Kentucky was right there bidding for an SEC East championship!
Back-to-back losses to Georgia and Tennessee ended that dream but the Cats got the expected victory over the Governors to become bowl-eligible. Then they waltzed into Louisville and smacked Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals all over the field for a seventh win.
A TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia Tech wasn’t fun but the program had taken a tangible step. With 17 starters returning, including slippery running back Benny Snell, Kentucky again heads into a season with great expectations.
This time, they feel there will be no stumbles.
“We talk about it all the time,” safety Mike Edwards said. “Just trying to build the team together, and the past years didn’t go as well, but we’ve been progressing every year. We went from 5-7 to now 7-6, so we’re doing pretty well and picking it up.”
Quarterback Stephen Johnson took over for the injured Drew Barker last season and he’ll once again take the reins this year (at least in Game 1). Snell handles the rushing, the Cats return four starters on the line and should challenge the offensive numbers they put up last year.
The defense needs to replace its first level, a concern considering how bad Kentucky looked against the run last year, but linebacker Jordan Jones racked up over 100 tackles last year (15.5 for loss) and the secondary is solid. The pieces are all there for Kentucky to easily make a bowl game, and perhaps challenge for a division title, with a much more conducive schedule.
They were picked fifth in the East by the media, but a consensus is that the 3-4-5 spots in the East are interchangeable between Kentucky, USC and Tennessee. The Cats play Ole Miss and Mississippi State from the West and get Florida and Tennessee at home.
They’ll have to avoid another early disappointment by winning at Southern Miss to start, and then go to South Carolina in Week 3 and try to make it four straight. Get those, and all of a sudden the final three games (at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, hosting Louisville) aren’t as daunting.
Kentucky took an enormous step last year, living up to its preseason declarations after a bad start. Avoid that bad start this year and there’s no telling how far the Wildcats could go.
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USC’s SEC Opponents
Sept. 9;at Missouri
Sept. 30;at Texas A&M
Oct. 14;at Tennessee
Nov. 4;at Georgia