After Kentucky football's final open scrimmage of the spring, Mark Stoops proclaimed himself pleased with the program's trajectory. "I like the direction we're headed," Stoops said.
It is too much to say that the 2015 season is make-or-break for the third-year Kentucky head coach. But coming off 2-10 (2013) and 5-7 (2014), it is vital for Stoops to lead his troops on a march forward in year three.
The reason is apparent if you look around college football. Many of the coaches who have elevated non-traditional powers into national relevance have tended to make a big move forward in the win/loss column in their third seasons.
Under Gary Pinkel, Missouri has won back-to-back SEC East championships. In Pinkel's first three seasons at Mizzou (2001-03), the Tigers went 4-7, 5-7 then 8-5.
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With Art Briles, Baylor has had double-digit wins three times in the past four seasons. Briles' initial three seasons at Baylor (2008-10) went 4-8, 4-8 to 7-6.
In the five seasons (2002-06) before Jim Harbaugh was hired at Stanford, the Cardinal went a combined 16-40. In Harbaugh's first three years (2007-09), the Stanford records progressed from 4-8, 5-7 to 8-5. In the coach's fourth season, Stanford went to the Orange Bowl.
Replacing the fired Steve Kragthorpe at Louisville in 2010, Charlie Strong's record progression went 7-6, 7-6, 11-2 (2012). He finished his tenure as U of L head man by winning 23 of his last 26 games.
Heck, if you want to go old school, Frank Beamer's first three Virginia Tech teams went 2-9 (1987), 3-8, 6-4-1.
Bill Snyder's initial trio of Kansas State squads went 1-10 (1989), 5-6, 7-4.
I see three main reasons for optimism that Stoops can produce a third-year progression at Kentucky this fall.
1.) The schedule. UK has a whopping eight home games in 2015, including five of its first six. Kentucky presumably will be playing those home contests amidst the excitement ginned up by a poshly-renovated Commonwealth Stadium.
2.) Quarterback play. Incumbent Kentucky starting quarterback Patrick Towles could be sitting on a breakout season. If you look at recent Wildcats football history, QBs have tended to come into their own as fourth-year juniors. Andre' Woodson did in 2006, and Mike Hartline was doing so in 2009 when his season was derailed by injury at South Carolina. In 2015, Towles will be a fourth-year junior.
Stoops did not declare a winner in this spring's quarterback battle between Towles and redshirt freshman Drew Barker — the only two healthy QBs UK has on scholarship. However, it's hard to imagine a player with the ample arm talent of Towles who now also has a full season of starting experience being beaten out.
3.) A difference maker. If Kentucky's defense had made them stand up (it didn't), Stanley "Boom" Williams would have produced two of the most-celebrated plays in all of UK football history last season as a true freshman.
Boom's cut-back-all-the-way across-the-field jaunt with a screen pass for a touchdown in overtime at Florida was epic. So was his carry-the-entire-defense-into-the-end-zone, go-ahead TD run in the fourth quarter at Louisville.
It remains to be seen whether the 5-foot-9, 196-pound Williams is durable enough to be an every-down SEC running back. But, like another guy who wore No. 18 for Kentucky (and now works in Green Bay, Wis.), Williams showed the knack in 2014 for producing game-altering plays under game-deciding pressure.
For head coaches in turnaround scenarios, the third year is not always a perfect indicator of program direction.
With 19 wins in the past two seasons, David Cutcliffe has worked a football miracle at Duke. Yet he actually regressed (4-8, 5-7, 3-9) in his third year (2010) leading the Blue Devils.
Dan Mullen had Mississippi State in serious contention for last season's College Football Playoff. He also had moved backward (5-7 in 2009, 9-4, 7-6) in his third year.
Still, overall, evidence suggests that the coaches who have elevated long-struggling college football operations have often seen their teams take a pivotal step upward in their third seasons.
Which is why Mark Stoops needs his third time around as Kentucky head coach to be a charm.