Finally, thankfully, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, when host Kentucky welcomes visiting Southern Miss for the duo’s college football opener, the speculation and questions of training camp give way to the answers the season provides.
Heading into his fourth season, Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops appears to have more depth in key positions. He has a new offensive coordinator. He has a new quarterback. He has a new special teams coordinator.
He has the benefit of a new $45 million training facility and practice fields right next door to the stadium that underwent a $110 million renovation just last season.
Does this Kentucky team, however, have what it takes to get the fans back in the stands?
Late in the week, there were well over 10,000 tickets available for opening night. That was even after ticket giveaways, special package deals and various other promotions. As of last month, season ticket sales were down 14 percent from last season.
Gone are the days when Kentucky football fans would show up and hope for the best. After watching the program go 25-48 since Rich Brooks retired in 2009, after claiming just eight SEC wins over the past six seasons, after seeing strong starts in the past two seasons vanish into flat-line finishes, a skeptical fan base appears to be holding out for tangible proof that things are in fact better.
And for the Cats, this opener is far from the usual cinch win over a sacrificial cupcake. Southern Miss won nine football games last season. In the Heart of Dallas Bowl, it was tied 24-24 in the third quarter with a Washington team that is ranked 14th in this season’s AP college football preseason poll. Washington prevailed 44-31, but the Huskies had to fight for it.
Southern Miss returns one of the nation’s better quarterbacks in Nick Mullens. It returns a 1,000-yard rusher in Ito Smith. Its new head coach, Jay Hopson, who led Alcorn State to a pair of SWAC titles, comes from a defensive background.
“They’re a good football team,” Stoops said this week.
Stoops thinks he has a better football team. During training camp, the head coach talked often about how this team has had a “greater capacity” in most areas, whether it be practice, film work, taking coaching or hitting goals in the weight room. It can handle more.
The offense appears pretty well set under new coordinator Eddie Gran, who produced a top-10 offense last season at Cincinnati. Gran likes his depth at running back and wide receiver. He has praised quarterback Drew Barker’s maturity and progress. He has cited the intelligence of his offensive line.
Asked this week to compare the installation and process at UK to the one he encountered at Cincinnati, Gran replied, “Night and day, just because we’re so much further ahead here.”
There is more uncertainty on defense. Losing tackle Regie Meant and safety Darius West, a pair of projected starters, were early training camp blows. Stoops’ secondary appears strong, but his defensive line and linebackers lack experience. Young players will have to grow up fast.
“We expect to go play well,” Stoops said Friday.
We expect to go play well.
UK coach Mark Stoops on opener
If Kentucky doesn’t, the schedule says the season has 11 more games to go. The fan base isn’t likely to wait that long, however. A trip to Florida in the second week isn’t the only place Stoops will be feeling heat. Same goes for AD Mitch Barnhart, who made a big bet on his head coach two years ago with a lavish contract extension.
Outside of an unforeseen disaster, Barnhart isn’t likely to make a coaching change, and not just because of the contract’s hefty buyout clause. Stoops inherited a program down on talent, facilities and luck. A rebirth is a five-year project, at least.
It would sure make Stoops’ fifth season, however, less dramatic if the Cats could fulfill their promise in season four. That starts Saturday under the lights, when preseason happy talk is replaced by regular-season reality, good or bad.
The best way Kentucky football could start this season is to give its followers a reason to return.
Kentucky football 2016 schedule
New Mexico St.
Southern Mississippi at Kentucky
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Commonwealth Stadium
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1, XM Channel 93, Sirius Channel 93