Mark Story: The 4 programs Mark Stoops has to beat consistently to succeed

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 6, 2013 

A University of Kentucky football team has not beaten Louisville, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt in the same season since 2002.

In this summer of good feelings for Kentucky football, one can't blame UK backers if they see Mark Stoops' impressive recruiting momentum and have visions of someday beating Alabama and Florida dancing in their heads.

Yet if Stoops and the new UK coaching staff are to elevate Kentucky football in a way that lasts, the first step is for the Wildcats to gain the upper hand against four teams UK plays every year that have program profiles similar to UK:

1.) Louisville, Kentucky's annual intrastate non-conference rival.

2.) Mississippi State. Kentucky's permanent Southeastern Conference cross-divisional opponent (for now) from the West .

3.) Vanderbilt. The school that, until the last two seasons, had been traditionally one rung below UK in the SEC East.

4.) Missouri. A newcomer to the SEC East that, on paper, UK should be far more competitive with than it has historically been against Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and, so far in the 2000s, South Carolina.

The bad news for Kentucky is that all four will be favored to beat the Cats in 2013. The good news for Stoops is that there is no place to go but up against the four.

Louisville

All-time record against UK: Cats lead series 14-11 but Louisville has gone 11-8 vs. Kentucky since the modern series began in 1994.

The trend: Kentucky has lost two straight to Charlie Strong's Cardinals.

Chance for UK breakthrough this season: Slim. Kentucky will be a big underdog when Heisman Trophy candidate Teddy Bridgewater leads a U of L team with 16 starters back from the squad that crushed Florida in the Sugar Bowl last season into Commonwealth Stadium Sept. 14.

The future: If U of L QB Bridgewater turns pro after his junior year as expected, Kentucky's chances of reclaiming the Governor's Cup as early as 2014 go way up.

Mississippi State

All-time record against UK: Kentucky leads 21-19, but Mississippi State has a 13-8 advantage since the two teams began playing every season in 1992.

The trend: UK is 0-4 against Dan Mullen since the ex-Florida assistant took the MSU head coaching job in 2009.

Chance for UK breakthrough this season: Decent. After a 7-0 start last season, State lost five of its last six games and has "only" 12 starters back. The Bulldogs will be favored when UK visits Starkville Oct. 24, but the Cats have a viable shot at a Thursday night road upset.

The future: Mullen's teams have won 24 games combined in the past three seasons, but there is a sense his program has hit its ceiling with arch-rival Mississippi on the rise.

Vanderbilt

All-time record against UK: Kentucky leads 41-40-4, and is 8-5 against the Commodores in the 2000s.

The trend: Kentucky has been pulverized a combined 78-8 while dropping both games to Vandy since James Franklin came on board as head coach in 2011.

Chance for a UK breakthrough this season: Not impossible. Vandy is coming off a 9-4 season, but has the fewest returning starters (13) of the Franklin era and will be breaking in a new starting quarterback. Will Vanderbilt be affected by the fallout from the dismissal of four players this summer amid an investigation into a possible sexual assault?

The future: Will Franklin stay at Vandy long-term? If he does, can he keep the SEC's traditional doormat from "slipping back?"

Missouri

All-time record against UK: Kentucky leads 2-1.

The trend: Missouri scored a 33-10 victory over the Cats last season, the Tigers' first Southeastern Conference football win.

Chances for a UK breakthrough this season: Good. After an injury-marred junior season, dual-threat quarterback James Franklin (no relation to the Vandy coach) is among eight offensive starters back for Mizzou. Still, the Tigers' Nov. 9 visit to UK looks on paper like a prime chance for Stoops to win an SEC game.

The future: Last year, Missouri got beaten up physically in its first trip through the SEC meat grinder and suffered its first losing season since 2004. So far this off-season, Coach Gary Pinkel and staff do not seem to be recruiting at an SEC (meaning elite) level (currently ranked 45th in country by Rivals.com, putting them 13th in SEC).

Bottom line: For Kentucky football under Stoops to climb the ladder, the starting point is achieving consistent success against Louisville, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Missouri.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service