UK Football

How Mark Stoops and UK can make 2016 historic

2016 SEC Media Days - Coach Mark Stoops

University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops speaks at SEC Media days.
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University of Kentucky football head coach Mark Stoops speaks at SEC Media days.

These past two seasons, Kentucky has been agonizingly close to throwing off the yoke of its embarrassing losing streak to Florida.

In 2014 in Gainesville, the Gators needed three overtimes to prevail 36-30. Last year in the new Commonwealth Stadium, UF escaped 14-9, the Gators’ 29th straight win over the Wildcats.

As Mark Stoops prepares to lead Kentucky into the head coach’s fourth season, snapping the skid against Florida remains the most high-profile chance the Wildcats have to make positive history in 2016.

It is not the only area ripe for a Big Blue breakthrough, however.

Target of opportunity: Beat South Carolina for a third straight season.

Kentucky has not beaten an SEC foe in three straight years since Rich Brooks and Co. vanquished Vanderbilt four in a row from 2004-07.

Amazingly, UK has not beaten a non-Vandy, Southeastern Conference team in three straight seasons since Blanton Collier’s Cats beat Tennessee in 1957, ’58 and ’59 (counting a forfeit in 1976, Kentucky beat Mississippi State eight games in a row from 1958 through 1990, but UK did not face the Bulldogs in three consecutive seasons during that stretch).

Having sent Steve Spurrier into retirement at South Carolina off back-to-back losses vs. Kentucky, the Wildcats will be going for three in a row vs. the Gamecocks when new head man Will Muschamp brings rebuilding Carolina to Commonwealth on Sept. 24.

Odds UK makes history: High.

Target of opportunity: Beat Dan Mullen.

Since Mullen became Mississippi State head coach in 2009, the Bulldogs are perfect (7-0) against Kentucky. Given that MSU is 1.) UK’s permanent SEC West opponent, 2.) a program whose resources and tradition are not greater than Kentucky’s, it is vital for the Cats to reverse Mullen’s dominance if the UK program is to rise.

With MSU star quarterback Dak Prescott now in the NFL, Mississippi State’s visit to Lexington on Oct. 22 should provide UK a prime chance to do just that.

Odds UK makes history: Good.

Target of opportunity: Win an SEC road game in back-to-back seasons.

Kentucky has not won league games away from Lexington in consecutive seasons since 2008 (won at Mississippi State) and 2009 (won at Auburn, Vanderbilt and Georgia).

A year ago, Stoops and UK ended what had been a 20-game road SEC losing skid with a 26-22 win at South Carolina.

This season, Kentucky’s best chance to claim a league win away from home should come at Missouri on Oct. 29.

Kentucky beat Mizzou 21-13 in Commonwealth Stadium last season. Since then, the Tigers lost longtime coach Gary Pinkel to retirement. New head man Barry Odom inherits a program that endured ample turmoil on the field and off in 2015.

Odds UK makes history: Moderate.

Target of opportunity: Produce a .500 record in SEC games.

Kentucky has not gone 4-4 in the league since Andre Woodson and Co. did so in 2006. (The Cats have not had a winning record in SEC contests since Art Still and Derrick Ramsey led a 6-0 sweep in 1977).

On paper, UK’s path to .500 in 2016 appears to run through home games with South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State and the road trip to Mizzou. (The road to a winning league record would go through the same four games, then likely require an upset of Georgia at home).

Odds UK makes history: Moderate.

Target of opportunity. Beat Florida.

Of the 29 straight UK losses to UF, only seven have been by single digits — though two of those have come the past two seasons. That likely ensures the Gators will not be caught napping when Kentucky visits The Swamp on Sept. 10.

Odds UK makes history: Low.

Target of opportunity: Produce a nine-win season.

Kentucky has not enjoyed a nine-victory campaign since Jerry Claiborne’s Hall of Fame Bowl championship team (9-3) in 1984. Among all power-five conference football programs, only Indiana (1967) has gone longer since recording a nine-win season.

To get to nine wins in 2016, UK would likely need to go 7-0 at home, win at Mizzou (or at Louisville) and then win a bowl game.

Odds UK makes history: Low.

Target of opportunity: Beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

In 39 meetings with Alabama, Kentucky has never beaten the Crimson Tide outside of Lexington. Of course, UK has only vanquished Bama twice here, scoring a 6-0 victory in 1922 and winning 40-34 in overtime behind Tim Couch and Craig Yeast in 1997.

The closest UK has played Alabama in the Crimson Tide’s home state was a 7-7 tie in 1939 in Birmingham. Still, when UK visits Nick Saban, Damien Harris and the defending national champions Oct. 1, the Cats might draw inspiration from this:

Last time Kentucky played in Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2008, the Wildcats were competitive in a 17-14 loss.

Odds UK makes history: Minuscule.

Season opener

Southern Mississippi at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. Sept. 3 (ESPNU)