Mark Story: The two barriers Mark Stoops must clear to make UK football matter in the SEC

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 19, 2014 

Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops during the 2014 Blue White Game on April 26.

PHOTO BY MATT GOINS — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

From Sports Illustrated to USA Today, the national media has chronicled in recent months the man-bites-dog nature of Kentucky's surprising success on the football recruiting trail under Mark Stoops.

For the UK coach to convert his program's off-the-field momentum into a tangible on the-field rise, there are two bars Stoops has to clear.

Step one is to get Kentucky back to the level it was at during the end of the Rich Brooks coaching era, when the Cats were regularly making trips to minor bowl games.

The second goal — one no Kentucky coach has been able to achieve since 1984 — is to elevate UK to a level above Brooks' ceiling of seven wins in a regular season (not including bowl victories). Brooks did that three times in his final four years (2006, '07 and '09) but could never break through.

From some telling numbers, the paths that would allow Stoops to take both steps are starkly identifiable.

Step one: Back to the Brooks level

Want to identify the biggest difference between UK in its five-year bowl streak from 2006-10 and the Kentucky of the past three years &mdash the team that has compiled the worst overall record in the Southeastern Conference?

It is how the Cats have fared against three teams: their intrastate archrival; their permanent cross-division foe from the SEC West; and the one team from the SEC East that UK fans expect to consistently beat.

From 2006-10, when UK went 36-29 overall, Kentucky was 10-5 combined against Louisville, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Conversely, as UK went a horrid 9-27 over the past three years, it was 0-6 against those teams.

The most encouraging on-the-field aspect of UK's otherwise lackluster 2-10 debut under Stoops in 2013 was that the Wildcats were more competitive in losses against U of L, State and Vandy than they had been in Joker Phillips' final season as coach.

Reversing the results against that trio figures to be the first indicator if/when Stoops gets UK's program moving upward. Simply put, Kentucky must again start beating Louisville, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt with some regularity.

Step two: Taking the proverbial next step

The numbers tell an equally clear story of what has to happen for Stoops to lead Kentucky to a level — eight wins in a regular season, nine overall — that no UK football team has attained since Jerry Claiborne's Wildcats went 9-3 and won the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1984.

Kentucky has to become more competitive against the SEC East.

Since the SEC went to divisions in football starting with the 1992 season, UK's record in the East can only be described as embarrassing.

In that time, UK is 12-10 against Vanderbilt. Against the rest of the SEC East, the Wildcats have gone 10-80. Over the division era, Kentucky is 0-22 against Florida, 1-21 against Tennessee, 3-19 vs. Georgia, 6-16 against South Carolina and 0-2 vs. Missouri.

If that's not depressing enough, consider: Other than against Vanderbilt (8-6 in the 2000s), Kentucky has won all of four games against SEC East foes so far in the 21st century. The Cats beat Georgia in 2006 and '09, South Carolina in 2010 and Tennessee in 2011.

When a program gets locked into such long negative streaks against foes it has to face every season, I'm convinced it creates mental hurdles that perpetuate the losing.

From 2006-10, the Wildcats were highly competitive against teams from the SEC West. In that span, Kentucky went 7-8 against the West and beat every team in that division at least once except for Alabama (Texas A&M had not yet joined the league).

Yet during the same period, Kentucky went 7-18 against the East. If you take out 4-1 vs. Vanderbilt, the Cats were an even worse 3-17.

Other than Mississippi State, UK does not play West teams annually. Therefore, the Cats do not seem to carry the same level of psychological baggage against those programs.

In the long view, if Stoops can elevate the UK program so it just beats its East Division rivals other than Vanderbilt two or three times each decade — hardly an audacious goal — it would change the paradigm of what is possible in Kentucky football.

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

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