In the past few seasons under Coach Mark Stoops, December has been an important month for the Kentucky football program.
But it hasn’t had much to do with football.
It’s become a tradition of sorts for Stoops and his coaching staff to pick one weekend during December — usually one with a high-profile, home basketball game — and invite all of UK’s senior commitments and top remaining recruits to Lexington for a group official visit.
For this recruiting class, that date is set for next weekend — UK hosts UCLA in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3 — and, this time, Stoops will have a lot more to sell.
The Wildcats are bowl-eligible for the first time during his tenure. And that means their season won’t be over when their top recruits come to town.
Next Cats page: A closer look at all of UK’s commitments for the class of 2017
“Any time you can go to a bowl game, and you can essentially sell that as a prize … kids want that,” said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell. “There are so many teams that make bowl games nowadays that, if you’re one of the few that doesn’t, you really stick out like a sore thumb. So it’s something you can sell to them. It’s progress you can show them. And in recruiting, you point out all the positives: ‘Here’s where we are. Here’s what we’re doing. Here are the young players impacting. Here are the guys that are either leaving or not playing up to snuff at your position, and you can come in and hit the ground running.’
“But, if you’re 5-7 or 4-8, that stuff becomes something people tend to nod their head at and dismiss immediately.”
Farrell said that these December recruiting visits can go one of two ways.
If your team isn’t bowl-eligible, the visiting recruits get to see the campus, meet the players and coaches and check out the facilities. “But you don’t have anything to show them but film,” Farrell said.
This time, UK’s visiting recruits will actually get to see some football.
“There’s more energy, there’s more activity about it,” he said. “The most important thing is getting that extra month of coaching and development out of your players. But the second part is it’s just a much more dynamic official visit when you can actually show them something.”
Any of those prospects would be great additions for Stoops, who has continued to move this UK program forward — even if the progress hasn’t been sudden enough for some in the fan base.
There’s this myopic view of Kentucky fans and what their program should be. ... You’re bleeding blue. You’re not seeing the whole picture.
Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst
After embarrassing losses to Southern Miss and Florida to start the season, Rivals.com — and just about every other college football outlet — had Stoops on the “hot seat” list.
After victories over South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri — clinching UK’s first .500 season in the Southeastern Conference since 2006 — Stoops was named by Farrell as the SEC’s top “overachiever” this fall.
“Kentucky fans don’t want to hear this, but Kentucky is a basketball school. Period,” Farrell told the Herald-Leader. “And they’re in a football conference. … When that’s the perception, and that’s being used against you in recruiting, when you reach heights at Kentucky that haven’t been reached in a decade, you’re overachieving, to me.
“There’s this myopic view of Kentucky fans and what their program should be, because that’s different. You’re bleeding blue. You’re not seeing the whole picture.”
Progress usually doesn’t come easy in college football, and it rarely has for Kentucky. And, make no mistake, this is progress.
UK’s bowl eligibility should benefit the Cats’ recruiting. At the very least, erasing the reality of not being bowl-eligible is a step in the right direction.
“It’s been the elephant in the room,” Farrell said. “And now that elephant no longer exists.”