The votes aren’t in yet at Southeastern Conference Media Days.
So it’s hard to know how the rest of the league or its ballot-submitting media will perceive Kentucky after a breakout season that included a winning record, a tie for second place in the East and the Cats’ first bowl game since 2010.
But it really doesn’t matter what the returns say, said Coach Mark Stoops and his three players representing UK at Media Days on Wednesday afternoon.
With 17 starters returning, Kentucky is feeling good about its future.
“We’ve always considered ourselves as contenders, but it’s tough when you start off like we have before and the seasons we’ve had previously,” senior linebacker Courtney Love said. “We definitely started from the bottom and we’re working our way up and we’re going to make our case to be one of the best teams in our conference.”
Stoops, a coach who usually avoids prognostication in these settings, feels good about Kentucky’s chances going into this season.
“You don’t hear a lot about (us) because we haven’t been relevant enough in the SEC to this point,” he said on the main stage Wednesday afternoon. “We’re gaining on it. We are getting better. We’re getting in position to compete for the East. And our football team deserves that.”
Stoops and his group had a little swagger walking into this event. Among the Cats’ returnees are their top four tacklers and seven of their top 10.
And there’s plenty returning on offense as well, including quarterback Stephen Johnson, star running back Benny Snell and the entire offensive coaching staff.
“This year, we’re more mature,” Stoops said. “We have some older guys. … We can handle more. But the big key will be consistency. Good teams win, but the really great programs have that consistency year after year and we really want to do that.”
But is Kentucky — which is 0-15 against the bigger names in the East like Florida, Tennessee and Georgia since 2012 — ready to compete for a spot at the top?
It’s hard to say in the never predictable Southeastern Conference, but Stoops sees lots of positive signs.
“We’re ready to take it to the next level,” he said. “Again, each and every year I’ve been here, we talked about build, select, develop. And that’s building a winning culture, selecting the right players and developing them and have an intentional development plan once they get on campus.”
Johnson, one of UK’s three player representatives at Media Days, said the Cats’ confidence going into this fall camp is higher than it was a year ago. The Cats quarterback said he feels a sense of respect now, especially after tough victories over Louisville and Mississippi State.
“Those two games in particular caught people’s eye, let them know that Kentucky is a contending team,” he said. “We can do some things and plan to do some things this year.”
Love ran off a list of players returning that have taken on leadership roles: linebackers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen, nose guard Naquez Pringle, safety Mike Edwards and Johnson.
“I can name defense and offense and those guys are not going to put up with us taking a back seat,” said Love, who finished third on the team in tackles last season with 76. “We’re going to do everything we can to be the best we can be.”
All three players at the annual kickoff event on Wednesday said they feel a level of respect after last season’s 7-6 finish and are poised to earn more this season.
“People call us a sleeper, but I just say we’re on a come up, really,” Edwards said. “Everybody should just watch out for us.”