Mark Stoops stuck his head in the door. It was after Tuesday's Kentucky football practice. The media was waiting inside the team meeting room for the interview sessions to start. Even though he wasn't on the schedule, the Kentucky football coach still made a brief appearance.
"I hear the sky's falling," he said with a smile. "I figured I'd better address that."
And then his head was out the door again. It was a joke. The media laughed, but the point was well taken. The sky isn't falling, but you would think that's the case, given the reaction of Big Blue Nation.
After a 4-1 start, Kentucky hauls a 4-5 record to Vanderbilt on Saturday. After a tough 30-27 loss to Auburn, the Cats have been smashed on three successive weeks — 42-16 by host Mississippi State; 52-21 by visiting Tennessee, and 27-3 by host Georgia.
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Mississippi State and Georgia were simply bad matchups. MSU owned too many bone-crunchers. There's a reason State Coach Dan Mullen is 7-0 against UK. And, although it might have appeared otherwise, the Cats caught Georgia at the exact wrong time. Those Bulldogs were desperate for a win to quiet the noise from a 27-3 loss to Florida.
UK's loss to Tennessee was a little different. A trio of bad plays — the Vols' 75-yard scoring pass just after UK had taken a 14-10 lead and a pair of kick returns (one a kickoff; the other a punt) for touchdowns — turned a fairly competitive game into a trouncing.
Before that, against comparable talent, Kentucky had played relatively well. It had beaten South Carolina on the road. It had beaten Missouri at home. It had played Florida, now the SEC East champ, into the fourth quarter with a shot to win.
What's worrisome to the BBN is that this looks so much like last year, when Stoops' club began 5-1 and ended 5-7. It's not. UK's final six 2014 foes were much better than the Cats. Five were double-digit favorites. The exception, Missouri, was an eight-point favorite in Columbia and beat Kentucky by 10.
This year, Mississippi State and Georgia were both double-digit favorites. Tennessee was a touchdown-plus favorite. But now, unlike 2014, Kentucky hits a more favorable stretch. UK is a three-point underdog at Vandy, but it will be favored the next week against visiting Charlotte. The season finale against Louisville figures to be a smallish spread either way.
Bottom line: The eternal optimists got ahead of themselves. The 4-1 start and the perception of the SEC East being in disarray raised hopes. Turns out South Carolina and Missouri are both flawed teams in down seasons. Kentucky's victories over the two don't appear as impressive now.
As it stands now, the Cats are about where they should be. They've won every game they should have won. They've lost every game they should have lost. They are a 4-5 team, no better, no worse, that finishes with three winnable games. That doesn't mean UK will win. It does mean UK has a reasonable chance to win.
How will Stoops' team respond? The offense has struggled, but those were pretty good defenses the past three weeks. UK's best offensive player, Boom Williams, missed practically all of the past two games. The defense has looked at times unorganized and ineffective, but the loss of nose guard Melvin Lewis was a significant blow. This is not yet a roster that can just absorb that kind of subtraction.
Here's the hard truth. Stoops has done good things. He has recruited well. He has helped raise money for facilities that previous coaches only dreamed about. In the SEC, however, and at Kentucky, three years is not enough time to complete a restoration project.
"Florida and Tennessee didn't just stop recruiting," ex-Georgia coach Jim Donnan used to say. "They're still out there getting players, too."
They're getting big, physical dudes, as Stoops would say. Kentucky needs a few more of those.