For all the positive buzz created by Mark Stoops and the new Kentucky football coaching staff, UK is still coming off a 2-10 season in 2012. The Wildcats face a 2013 schedule that includes five teams — Louisville, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia — that should start the season ranked in the nation's top 10.
On Tuesday, I asked Kentucky football fans how they will judge "success" for the first season of the Stoops era. As you will see below, the responses that came in across varying Internet platforms convey eminently reasonable expectations from Cats backers.
Via Twitter, @Hop_uk61 wrote "5 to 6 wins and looking like a well-coached football team. I'm not putting a ton of pressure on this staff this year."
From @timothyellisky came a "50/50 chance in most SEC games and a winning non-conf(erence) record works for me."
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The view of @ClifftonTackett is "if we see an overall improvement, more wins, better coaching and better recruiting. That is a success for me."
Meanwhile @MarshallKarem wrote "5 wins and being competitive in general would be big. 6 (wins) and Stoops will be heading toward statue status from year 1."
Via Facebook, Brad Levy said he wants to see "improvement, getting better, competing and winning more than two games."
From email, Richard Ronan of Louisville laid out three statistical benchmarks he wants from Kentucky in 2013. 1.) Hold the opposition to under 350 yards a game (last season, UK allowed 391 yards a contest); 2.) Gain 500-plus yards a game on offense (in school history, Kentucky has done that one time — 534.2 yards a game in 1998); 3.) Connect with 85-plus percent of field goals within 35 yards.
Wrote Ronan: "That's the recipe for UK success."
Comment: Those last benchmarks may be a bit optimistic for 2013, but if UK reaches the point that it is gaining 500 yards a game and allowing less than 350, good times will be here.
In my view, this is what success would look like for Kentucky in Stoops' first season.
UK needs to get better as the year progresses. Barring a catastrophic run of injuries, the Kentucky team that ends the season needs to be clearly better than the one that started it.
If Stoops can end the recent UK rash of blowout losses to SEC foes — 49-7 at Arkansas and 40-0 to Vanderbilt last season; 48-10 to Florida, 54-3 at South Carolina and 38-8 at Vandy in 2011 — that would be a move forward.
Four wins, which would double last season's Kentucky victory total, seems a reasonable baseline against such a difficult schedule. If Stoops and Co. get more than four, it's gravy.
Two vital games
The two most important games of Stoops' initial season seem obvious to me.
UK opens against Western Kentucky University in Nashville in what is also the WKU coaching debut of ex-Louisville and Arkansas head man Bobby Petrino. Kentucky losing to the Hilltoppers for a second straight season would let a lot of air out of the Stoops balloon.
It could also set the members of the "Bobby Petrino chorus" — those UK fans who wanted Mitch Barnhart to bring the scandal-tainted coach to Lexington — into conniptions of I Told You So.
UK needs to beat WKU.
The other game that is integral to defining Stoops' first season in a positive way is the last one, against Tennessee.
Yes, Kentucky is 1-27 in its last 28 meetings with the Rocky Toppers. However, in UT's last three visits to Commonwealth Stadium, the Vols have lost (2011); won in overtime (2009); and won in quadruple overtime (2007).
On paper, the 2013 Volunteers have huge question marks. Quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson — the stars of last season's 5-7 Volunteers — all turned pro early. The UT defense must regain its dignity after it allowed foes to gain 471.4 yards a game last year.
New Tennessee coach Butch Jones, the former Cincinnati Bearcats head man, was prominently named in the early UK speculation after Joker Phillips was fired. Jones held out for the Tennessee job. Beating him would be a big feather in Stoops' cap.
Mark Stoops needs to finish the coming season with the UK fan base as optimistic about the direction of Kentucky football as it is right now. Victories over Petrino and Tennessee would go a long way toward ensuring that.