Mark Story: Seven reasons to be optimistic about the future of UK football

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 2, 2013 

Kentucky running back Jojo Kemp dived for a touchdown against Mississippi State this season. Kemp, a true freshman, led the Wildcats in rushing with 482 yards.

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Even by the bleak historical standards of University of Kentucky football, the back-to-back 2-10 seasons produced by the Wildcats in 2012 and '13 have been epochally bad.

Before these past two years of 0-8 Southeastern Conference records, you have to go all the way back to 1941 and '42 to find the last time UK compiled two straight football seasons that included no SEC victories.

I fall among those who thought there would be more tangible signs of on-the-field improvement in the first year of the Mark Stoops coaching regime than what we saw.

Still, there are potential silver linings amidst the doom and gloom: Here are seven reasons for The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan to feel optimistic about the Big Blue future.

1. Baylor, Vanderbilt and Duke. All three of those schools have football histories that are as bad, if not worse, than Kentucky's. Yet Baylor (10-1) has now compiled double-digit victories in two of the past three seasons. Duke (10-2) is the ACC Coastal Division champion. Vanderbilt (8-4) has won 17 games in the past two seasons.

Even with all the negative historical trend lines of Kentucky football, if Baylor, Vandy and Duke can play winning football, why can't UK?

2. Incoming freshmen: Currently, Kentucky's 2014 recruiting class is ranked No. 9 in the country by Rivals.com. Until letters-of-intent are signed, all recruiting pledges are fluid. Still, even after this season's 2-10 slog, the UK coaching staff seems confident it will be able to hold its commitments.

"We've been honest with these kids. We knew this wasn't going to be a quick fix," Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We've sold them on honesty, on last year's recruiting class, this year's recruiting class and next year's recruiting class (as) being really the classes that will change the momentum of the program."

3. Rising sophomores. Kentucky's leading rusher in 2013 was true freshman Jojo Kemp. Two of its top three in receptions were true freshmen Ryan Timmons and Jeff Badet. Frosh Blake McClain was fourth in tackles. True freshman Jason Hatcher tied for third on the team in sacks.

All those players should take a huge step forward after a full year in a major-college training regimen. "You have no idea how much difference that will make for guys just in terms of their bodies and development," Brown said.

4. The new Commonwealth Stadium. The decision by UK to downsize from its current capacity of 67,000 to about 61,000 as part of a $110 million project designed to make Commonwealth into a state-of-the-art, 21st-century stadium by 2015 is one of the smartest big decisions ever made for Kentucky football.

In a league filled with cavernous football cathedrals, UK was never going to make an impact in the SEC with the size of its stadium. Why not go for a niche as the school with the most modern, nicest football venue?

5. Jerry Claiborne and Rich Brooks. In UK history, a disappointing first season does not mean a coach won't have a positive tenure. Claiborne went 0-10-1 in 1982 as Kentucky's head man, then he went on to lead UK to three winning seasons in the next seven years, including two bowl berths.

Brooks inherited a veteran Kentucky team in 2003 that was coming off a seven-victory season but produced a sour 4-8 campaign. Yet he eventually led UK to four straight winning seasons.

6. Teddy Bridgewater and Jordan Matthews. The consensus opinion is that Bridgewater, Louisville's star junior quarterback, will enter the 2014 NFL draft. Matthews, the standout senior Vanderbilt wideout whose 12 catches for 141 yards were the main difference in Vandy's 22-6 win over UK in 2013, will definitely be gone.

When difference-making playmakers Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke left Kentucky after 2010, it flipped the balance of power between UK and two teams the Cats have to beat, Louisville and Vanderbilt. Can't the same thing happen in reverse?

7. There is nowhere to go but up. After UK's dispiriting season-ending loss to Tennessee on Saturday, Cats senior linebacker Avery Williamson was asked about the future of the program he is leaving behind.

"With the recruiting they've been doing and the discipline they've put on this team," Williamson said, "there's no choice but to get better."

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

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