UK Football

Mark Story: In 2016, can UK get in on the football fun WKU and U of L are having?

UK quarterback Drew Barker watched the opening kickoff of the Kentucky-Louisville football game at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015.
UK quarterback Drew Barker watched the opening kickoff of the Kentucky-Louisville football game at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. Herald-Leader

For the good folks in Clemson, S.C., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., the 2015 college football season is ongoing even though the calendar has flipped to 2016.

Here in the commonwealth, however, now that Louisville and Western Kentucky have scored bowl victories it is “next year” for college football fans.

To help turn the pigskin page, a look ahead to what 2016 could have in store for our state’s three FBS football programs — Kentucky, U of L and WKU.

Kentucky Wildcats

Final 2015 accounting: 5-7 (2-6 Southeastern Conference)

Fondest 2015 memory: Patrick Towles threw for two touchdowns and ran for one to lead Kentucky to a 21-13 win over then-No. 25 Missouri — UK’s first victory over a ranked foe since 2010.

Greatest 2015 regret: Take your pick: With bowl eligibility at stake, Kentucky lost in excruciating ways to 1.) Vanderbilt, when the Cats fell 21-17 after twice failing to score from 1st-and-goal inside the Vandy 4-yard line; 2.) Louisville, in which UK lost 38-24 after having a 24-7 halftime lead.

Reason for optimism in 2016: Mark Stoops’ hire of Cincinnati offensive coordinator Eddie Gran — a former assistant at Florida State, Auburn and Tennessee — as Kentucky’s assistant head coach of offense seems solid. Gran, 50, should bring the experience to help Stoops improve on last season’s often-shaky game management.

Reason for dread in 2016: In a season when UK head man Stoops (12-24, 4-20 SEC in three years) needs to produce, Kentucky will have everything riding on unproven quarterback Drew Barker — and really doesn’t have a viable Plan B if Barker doesn’t succeed.

Storyline to watch: How big of an impact will transfers Greg Hart (tight end, Nebraska), Courtney Love (linebacker, Nebraska) and De’Niro Laster (linebacker, Minnesota) make? The linebackers, especially, need to come through.

Resolution for 2016: Two, actually. 1.) Don’t collapse in the second half of the season for a third straight year; 2.) Beat South Carolina, Vanderbilt and a Dak Prescott-less Mississippi State in Lexington as the route to getting bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.

Louisville Cardinals

Final 2015 accounting: 8-5 (5-3 ACC; beat Texas A&M 27-21 in Music City Bowl)

Fondest 2015 memory: True freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson came off the bench and rallied Louisville from a 21-0 deficit to a 38-24 victory over Kentucky — the Cardinals’ fifth straight win over their archrivals.

Greatest 2015 regret: With what could have been a season-defining upset of Clemson within grasp, Louisville missed a 38-yard field goal and threw an interception in the final 2:28 of a 20-17 loss to the visiting Tigers. Clemson, you might note, remains unbeaten and will play Alabama for the national championship Jan. 11.

Reason for optimism in 2016: If you watched Jackson strafe Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl for 227 yards and two touchdowns passing and 226 yards and two touchdowns rushing, you have the answer.

Reason for dread in 2016: In what will be a season of high expectations, Bobby Petrino’s crew faces two tricky road games at non-power five conference foes Marshall (10-3) and Houston (13-1).

Storyline to watch: Long before spring practice starts, the arc of Louisville’s 2016 season could be determined by whether standout junior defenders Devonte Fields, Keith Kelsey and Josh Harvey-Clemons turn pro or stay put?

Resolution for 2016: Break out of the ACC’s second tier by beating either Clemson or Florida State.

WKU Hilltoppers

Final 2015 accounting: 12-2 (8-0 Conference-USA; beat Southern Mississippi 45-28 in C-USA championship game; beat South Florida 45-35 in Miami Beach Bowl).

Fondest 2015 memory: In a bowl matchup with former Western Kentucky head coach and player Willie Taggart, the Hilltoppers rallied from a 14-0 deficit to send record-breaking senior quarterback Brandon Doughty out with a win.

Greatest 2015 regret: Saw 28-17 halftime lead at Indiana turn into a 38-35 loss. It cost Western a road win over a Big Ten foe to add to its season-opening victory at the SEC’s Vanderbilt — and the positive national publicity that would have come with it.

Reason for optimism in 2016: After a season in which Jeff Brohm’s high-scoring offense (44.3 points a game, 526.4 yards) and league championship could have opened the door to a higher-profile coaching job, the WKU head man instead chose to stay in Bowling Green.

Reason for dread in 2016: Unless the NCAA grants Doughty a seventh year of eligibility (after losing two seasons to injury, the QB got six), Brohm and WKU will have to show they can sustain momentum without the biggest reason for this year’s ample success.

Storyline to watch: Among returning backup Nelson Fishback, a redshirt senior-to-be, and transfers Mike White (South Florida) and Tyler Ferguson (Penn State by way of Louisville), who will claim the starting QB job?

Resolution for 2016: Keep the fire burning.