UK Football

Is this the make-or-break week for Mark Stoops?

For Mark Stoops, a Kentucky victory over South Carolina on Saturday would keep alive viable paths to make the 2016 season a success.
For Mark Stoops, a Kentucky victory over South Carolina on Saturday would keep alive viable paths to make the 2016 season a success.

For all the sound and fury that surrounds big-time college sports, there are not many true “must-win” games.

Kentucky Wildcats fans are about to see one.

When South Carolina (2-1, 1-1 SEC ) visits Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. to face UK (1-2, 0-1), it will be the most important game Mark Stoops has coached as Wildcats head man.

If UK wins, even after all the kvetching over the meltdown loss to Southern Mississippi in the season opener and the no-show blowout defeat at Florida in game two, Kentucky will be 2-2.

With home games left against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Georgia and Austin Peay plus a road trip to Missouri, there would still be a viable path to bowl eligibility open to the Cats.

Lose to South Carolina and the road to bowl eligibility — or even to five wins — gets very problematic for Kentucky.

Heck, even if a victory over South Carolina only ended up leading to a third straight 5-7 finish for UK, that would probably be enough — given the $12 million buyout it would cost to remove the Kentucky head coach after this season — to keep Stoops (13-26) from being fired.

However, lose to South Carolina and the road to bowl eligibility — or even to five wins — gets very problematic for Kentucky.

The Cats will be trying to beat the Gamecocks for a third consecutive season. Other than Vanderbilt, UK has not beaten an SEC foe in three straight seasons since Blanton Collier’s Wildcats bested Tennessee in 1957, ’58 and ’59.

If Stoops in his fourth season at UK were to lose to Will Muschamp in the latter’s first year at South Carolina, it would send a dispiriting message about the state of the Kentucky football program.

In the preseason, many believed Muschamp, the former Florida head coach, would be bringing an 0-3 team to Lexington.

Instead, South Carolina rallied in the second half to win at Vanderbilt, 13-10, in the opener. After a 27-14 road loss at Mississippi State, the Gamecocks beat East Carolina 20-15 last Saturday in spite of being outgained 519-312 and seeing ECU dominate the time of possession (38:25 to 21:35).

What saved South Carolina were four forced turnovers — two fumble recoveries and two interceptions.

By starting 2-1, the Gamecocks have put themselves in position to aspire to a bowl trip. Yet it’s hard to envision South Carolina reaching six victories without a win over Kentucky.

“Big game for both of us,” Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference.

Stoops left it up in the air who will start at quarterback for Kentucky on Saturday night. In UK’s 62-42 shootout victory over New Mexico State last weekend, Kentucky starting QB Drew Barker left the game with a back injury after throwing an interception on UK’s first offensive series.

It was Barker’s seventh turnover (five interceptions, two lost fumbles) since halftime of the Southern Miss game. Stoops said Barker has been dealing with varying degrees of back discomfort since the summer.

Junior-college transfer Stephen Johnson turned in a stellar relief performance for Kentucky against NMSU, throwing for 310 yards (17-of-22 passing) and giving the offense a new dimension by deftly executing run-pass-option plays.

Stoops said he did not know what Barker’s status was for South Carolina. “He had an MRI. He’s gonna consult with our doctors and some specialists and we’ll get to the bottom of it and see what’s best for him,” the UK coach said.

Even though the Kentucky offense had its most impressive showing (692 total yards) of the season — albeit against a Sun Belt Conference foe — with Johnson at the controls Saturday, Stoops said Barker would start against South Carolina if healthy.

Drew’s listed as the starter on the depth chart for a reason,” Stoops said.

Neither QB has played enough at Kentucky — Barker five career starts; Johnson two career games — to have a sample size large enough to merit lasting judgments.

Still, if I had all that Stoops has riding on beating South Carolina, I’d feel more comfortable riding the hot hand from the prior game in Johnson than risking Barker with a balky back.

For many reasons beyond the $12 million, it would be better for UK if Stoops could get the current season stabilized and remove his contract buyout and job status from the Kentucky football narrative.

If UK beats South Carolina, he still has a decent chance to do just that.

Lose to the Gamecocks, and Stoops and UK are running up a steep hill.

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