If your college football enjoyment is spiced by seeing head coaches challenged, the 2016 season in Kentucky should provide rewarding drama.
The buyout clause in Stoops’ UK contract if he were terminated after the 2016 season is some $12 million, so I do not believe 2016 is a make-or-break year for the coach (barring a complete competitive meltdown, $12 million is too much to pay someone not to coach).
However, entering his fourth season as top Cat with a 12-24 record, Stoops urgently needs to win some games this fall.
My first-hand memory of Kentucky football pretty much starts with the season Commonwealth Stadium opened (1973). In that time, I don’t believe I’ve seen a Kentucky coach who has matched Stoops’ off-the-field acumen.
Since coming to Lexington, Stoops has been able to tap into some of the big-money boosters who have traditionally backed the Wildcats’ men’s basketball program and gotten them to invest in football. The result can be seen in the state-of-the-art football complex being built next to Commonwealth Stadium.
Stoops’ recruiting support staff is skilled in creating the impression of recruiting momentum. Under Stoops, UK’s classes have consistently been ranked higher than Kentucky’s prior 21st Century recruiting had been.
The trend of off-season “wins” continued this year. After Kentucky concluded its second-straight 5-7 season in 2015, if you had asked most Cats fans what they wanted done, the top two answers might have been: 1.) add more proven offensive coaches; 2.) hire/designate a special teams coordinator.
Stoops did both. In luring Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw to run the offense, Stoops got two veteran coaches who have had success at SEC schools. Newly hired linebackers coach Matt House has coordinating the special teams in his UK job portfolio.
Is 2016 when off-season “victories” at last translate into a bowl trip for Kentucky? The outcome of home games with South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State and a road contest at Missouri seem likely to determine the fate of Stoops’ fourth season.
In his second go-round at Louisville, Petrino is still chasing the ghosts of his ultra-successful initial stint (2003-06) as U of L head man. During Petrino’s first run as Cardinals coach, Louisville went 41-9, and scored 40 or more points 31 times in 50 games.
Coinciding with U of L’s move into the ACC, Petrino 2.0 has come nowhere close to matching those numbers. Through two seasons, Petrino is 17-9. In 26 games, his offense has put 40 or more points on the board only four times — and two of those came against FCS foes Murray State and Samford.
Through most of the first two years of Petrino’s second run at U of L, the coach was unable to settle on a starting quarterback. The late-season emergence in 2015 of explosive dual-threat Lamar Jackson, however, means Petrino finally has a clear-cut choice at QB - and has had a full off-season to scheme ways to utilize potentially one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football.
Even against a schedule that includes Clemson, Florida State and Houston, my hunch is the offensive output for 2016 Louisville is going to look closer to what U of L backers were expecting when Petrino returned. That seems to be the expectation of Louisville Athletics Director Tom Jurich, too, as evidenced by his awarding Petrino with an oddly timed, seven-year, $30.625 million contract extension this off-season.
At Western Kentucky, Brohm’s task is keep the good times rolling. WKU enters 2016 having won 17 of its last 19 games.
Western opened 2015 by beating an SEC team, Vanderbilt, in Nashville. The Hilltoppers won the 2015 Conference-USA championship and claimed a sweet victory over ex-Western Kentucky head man Willie Taggart and South Florida in last season’s Miami Beach Bowl.
Under Brohm, Western has made scoreboards light up like the Vegas strip. In Brohm’s 27 games, Western has scored 40 points or more 17 times and been above 30 points 24 times.
Entering 2016, Brohm must show he can sustain prosperity without the polished Doughty (chosen by the Miami Dolphins in the seventh round of the draft).
By not seeking a higher profile coaching job after Doughty’s departure, Brohm has bet big on himself.
If WKU performs in 2016 anywhere close to the level it has played at in its previous 19 games, Brohm will have stamped himself as one of the most appealing candidates in next season’s coaching carousel.