John Clay: Win column in 2014 won't reflect Stoops' progress

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 23, 2014 

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Kentucky foootball Coach Mark Stoops watched practice Monday. Stoops named Patrick Towles the starting quarterback just before the start of practice.

PHOTO BY CHARLES BERTRAM | STAFF — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

First, a disclaimer.

Do I think Mark Stoops will succeed at Kentucky? Yes. Has he raised the talent level? Yes. Is he doing what's necessary behind the scenes to push the program in the right direction? Yes.

Now the hard part: Are we going to see the fruits of those labors this season?

In victories — no.

While the staff has shown it can find talent, the problem this year will be finding wins.

To be sure, Kentucky will be improved. The offense has more weapons. The defense has the team's two best players (defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith) and more familiarity with a system that has a history of making a second-year jump.

As is often the case for Kentucky football, however, the schedule is the problem.

The early schedule is advantageous. The Cats open with a couple of non-Power 5 conference teams in UT-Martin and Ohio. The former plays in the OVC, the latter in the MAC. UT-Martin does boast Brett Favre's nephew as its quarterback, and Ohio has a solid program under former Nebraska coach Frank Solich.

Still, look for Kentucky to open 2-0. Look for Stoops, offensive coordinator Neal Brown and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot to test plenty of their newcomers. Look for the young Cats to pick up confidence before the conference slate starts.

The SEC opener is Florida, but not the 4-8 Gators of 2013. Will Muschamp was unlucky in 2013. Injuries ravaged the Gators. Critics soon followed. Matters collapsed. Now Florida is healthy and hungry. And a Florida football team hasn't lost to a Kentucky football team since 1986.

Circle Sept. 27 as the season's crossroads date. Vanderbilt plays at Commonwealth Stadium. I've heard Kentucky fans counting this as a UK victory considering the opponent is, well, Vandy. And yet the Commodores thrashed the Cats 38-8 in 2011, 40-0 in 2012 and won 22-6 in Nashville last season. That's a lot to make up.

Next, South Carolina comes calling. Steve Spurrier has Columbia humming. The Gamecocks lost several key players to graduation. No problem. South Carolina has passed the state of rebuilding. Spurrier reloads.

UL-Monroe represents the finale of a three-game UK home stand. The Warhawks have a new quarterback and are considered a dark horse pick in the Sun Belt. Kentucky should be favored, however, and a non-conference home loss in mid-season would be difficult to overcome.

LSU is beyond the Cats' capabilities right now. The goal will be to escape Death Valley without losing significant players to injuries.

Kentucky has lost five straight to Mississippi State. Dan Mullen must bring his team to Lexington, but this might be one of Mullen's better teams. If the Cats are to be a 2014 surprise, this is a must-win. An upset is possible, not probable.

November opens with a journey to Missouri, last season's surprise SEC East winner. Missouri doesn't figure to be as good. The game is in Columbia, however. Kentucky hasn't won a conference road game since 2009.

Georgia beat Kentucky 59-17 last season in Athens. It should be closer this time on Cooper Drive. And yet a few experts believe the Dogs could play their way into national title contention. Mark Richt might be looking for another blowout.

The season ends with successive road games at archrivals. Tennessee is now UK's next-to-last game, Louisville the season finale. In a perfect world, these games would be one at home, the other on the road. College football scheduling is far from perfect.

Butch Jones' reclamation project appears a little ahead of Stoops' — Jones inherited more to work with — so Tennessee will be tough to beat in Knoxville.

Bobby Petrino has a proven track record of not being a nice person, but he can coach. Louisville should extend its win streak over UK to four.

Bottom line: A 4-8 Kentucky record requires an upset somewhere along the road. A 3-9 finish is more likely. That would be a one-win improvement over 2013. A baby step, but a step forward nonetheless.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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