UK Football

Mark Story: Should Cats fans regard Mark Stoops' second season at UK as a success?

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops dropped his head after Georgia pasted the host Cats 63-31. UK has more than doubled its win totals from the previous two seasons, but big losses raise questions.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops dropped his head after Georgia pasted the host Cats 63-31. UK has more than doubled its win totals from the previous two seasons, but big losses raise questions. Herald-Leader

At his weekly news conference, Mark Stoops was asked if he regarded his second season as Kentucky head coach as a success.

"I'll let you decide on whether it's been successful or not," Stoops replied. "I really haven't put any thought into that, to be honest with you."

Having said that, the UK head man then appeared to give the topic some thought.

"I know we're a better football team," Stoops said. "I felt like that coming into the year, that we would be better. I think we are better. Are we where I want to be? No."

Sitting at 5-6 and riding a five-game losing skid, Kentucky still has one more chance to shape the perception of its season, of course. At high noon Saturday, the Wildcats will be in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium to face archrival Louisville (8-3).

Besides making the Cats bowl eligible, a UK upset of the 24th-ranked Cardinals would stamp Stoops' second season as an unquestioned success. Yet if Kentucky is not able to beat Louisville for the first time since 2010, how should Wildcats fans feel about the UK season?

It is complicated, the ultimate glass half-full, glass half-empty scenario.

Glass half-full: With five victories, Kentucky has more than doubled its win total (2) from each of the 2012 and '13 seasons. After going winless in SEC games in each of the two prior seasons, UK has two checks in the Southeastern Conference victory column this year.

That is progress.

Yet ...

Glass half-empty: As little fun as the five-game losing skid has been, there is no disgrace in losing at LSU, to Mississippi State, at Missouri, to Georgia and at Tennessee.

What has been disheartening, however, is how UK has lost. The Cats have not even been competitive in three of the losses — the 41-3 smashing at LSU, the 63-31 steamrolling by Georgia and the 50-16 pasting at UT.

For all the talk about Stoops "changing the culture of UK football," the performances against Georgia and Tennessee, especially, had a "same old Kentucky" feel to them.

That is concerning.

Glass half-full: The Kentucky offense is very young, especially at the skill positions and in the interior of the offensive line. The good news is the UK attack has improved its scoring average by almost eight points a game (from 20.5 to 28.2) from 2013. Kentucky's total offensive production (389.5 yards a game) is a substantial improvement over last year (341.3). It's the best UK total yardage number since Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke & Co. put up 427.8 yards a game in 2010.

That is progress.

Yet ...

Glass half-empty: When Stoops hired former Hal Mumme-era Kentucky wide receiver Neal Brown as offensive coordinator, UK immediately began marketing the return of the Air Raid. Yet, in 2014, UK is averaging 26 pass attempts a game. During the original Air Raid (1997-2000), Kentucky averaged at least 48 pass attempts a game every year but one — and UK threw it 39 times a game in 1999.

Twenty three games into the current era, UK's offensive identity is not as firmly established as I would have anticipated.

That is concerning.

Glass half-full: In 2014, the Kentucky defense held an SEC foe, albeit struggling Vanderbilt, without an offensive touchdown. The UK 'D' provided the game-winning TD (Alvin "Bud" Dupree's interception return) in Kentucky's comeback victory over South Carolina. At Missouri, the Wildcats' defense controlled the second half and gave the Wildcats a chance to win a road game against a good team.

That seemed like progress.

Yet ...

Glass half-empty: In Stoops' second year running the defense at Florida State, he presided over dramatic improvement. The Seminoles went from 42nd in the country in total 'D' in 2010 to fourth in 2011.

Lacking FSU-level talent, no one was expecting miracles from Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot at UK, but the overall defensive numbers for Kentucky have moved little from 2013 to 2014. A year ago, Kentucky gave up 31.2 points a game and 427.2 yards a contest; this season, UK has allowed 30.1 points and 401 yards a game.

Three times during the current five-game losing streak UK has surrendered in excess of 500 yards — Mississippi State (542 yards), Georgia (559) and at Tennessee (511).

That is concerning.

Of course, if UK were to stun "Bad Bobby" and the Men of Petrino, all Big Blue glasses will be overflowing.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader