Wildcats take the field for season opener
Kentucky has now led its last two football games at halftime 24-7 and 35-17 — and lost them both.
In Mark Stoops’ four seasons as UK head coach, the Wildcats have now lost season openers to a Sun Belt Conference team and a Conference USA member.
Through 37 games as Kentucky head coach, Stoops now has a worse record (12-25) than Bill Curry — the modern symbol of UK football coaching futility — did (13-24).
After the stunning Kentucky collapse Saturday night that saw a 35-10 Wildcats lead over Southern Mississippi turn into a 44-35 UK loss to the visitors from C-USA, there are few objective reasons to believe Stoops is going to get it done as UK head coach.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever in my career, ever wanted to apologize for a game,” Stoops said, “but that’s a tough pill to swallow right there and I do (apologize). … That’s a tough loss and our fans deserved better.”
The Long Suffering UK Football Fans have every right to feel they’ve watched this horror show before.
Yet here’s the thing.
If you paid attention to Southeastern Conference football below the Alabama/Georgia rung over the opening weekend, the league appears to be a heaping helping of dung.
The one encouraging note in Kentucky’s loss to Southern Mississippi was the first-half UK air show.
Mississippi State lost at home to South Alabama. Missouri got waxed at West Virginia. South Carolina’s narrow escape at Vanderbilt on Thursday night was a game so ugly it’s a minor miracle it didn’t cause blindness among those who watched.
All those apparent SEC mediocrities are on Kentucky’s schedule. From among that middling group, at least one bad team almost has to improve.
So, to coin a phrase, why not Kentucky?
As dismal as things look now, UK still gets South Carolina, Vandy and Mississippi State at home, plus a road trip to Missouri.
If Kentucky is the bad SEC team that actually beats the other bad SEC teams — and one bad SEC team is likely to take that path to a bowl game — there is a path to saving the 2016 season.
The one encouraging note in Kentucky’s loss to Southern Mississippi was the first-half UK air show. Before halftime, Drew Barker threw for 287 yards and four touchdowns.
Much-maligned a season ago, the UK receiving corps had no drops, and made a series of explosive plays.
That is at least something to build upon.
What is most worrisome for Kentucky and Stoops is that, four years in, the UK defense seems to be regressing. In acquiring revenge for Shannon Dawson, Southern Miss manhandled the Kentucky defensive front. USM ran for a whopping 262 yards.
If you are getting gashed by a C-USA rushing attack — albeit a good one — what reason is there to think you can stop the ground games of even bad SEC teams?
It was also disappointing that, once Southern Mississippi seized the momentum Saturday night, the Kentucky offense folded.
Entering the season, it was presumed that the UK defense could struggle. The theory was that a veteran Wildcats offense would have to win shootouts until the “D” figured it out.
Yet up 35-17 starting the third quarter, the UK offense had two fumbles, a pick and a three-and-out to show for five second-half possessions.
All this while Southern Mississippi was ending the game on a 34-0 run.
“The way I look at it, our turnovers led to 10 (Southern Miss) points,” new UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said, “and that’s what cost us the game.”
In many years, Kentucky losing at home to a C-USA team in a demoralizing manner would pretty much signify a season of no hope with the normally rugged SEC schedule ahead.
Yet, in a slice of football irony, the SEC is the reason UK has a narrow path to salvation in 2016.
On week one, Mississippi State looked bad. Vanderbilt looked bad. South Carolina looked bad. Missouri looked bad.
Sure, other than its first-half passing attack, UK looked bad, too.
But one of those bad teams almost has to improve.
Defying pretty much all we’ve seen so far in the Mark Stoops era, why not Kentucky?