So what’s a step forward for Kentucky football?
That’s the question, the big question, the one overriding question beyond the identity of the starting quarterback, the depth of the roster, the needed improvement on defense, or just how will preseason injuries and illness affect the overall outlook of the 2018 edition.
You build a program in steps. And Mark Stoops is entering his sixth season as Kentucky’s football coach. He has posted back-to-back winning records. He’s been to back-to-back bowl games. His teams are 8-8 in the SEC over the past two seasons. He has 17 starters returning for the upcoming campaign.
So what constitutes taking a step forward?
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To me, taking that next step would involve reaching a third consecutive bowl game, posting the program’s first winning conference record in 41 years and at least challenging for the SEC East title. That’s the criteria. Let’s take them one at a time, back to front.
Having never won the SEC Eastern Division title, UK is one of four league schools — Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and Ole Miss being the other three — to have never made the trip to the conference championship game. Cracking that glass ceiling this season will be difficult, as it is every season. Georgia is the overwhelming favorite to win the East. That’s the same Georgia that whipped Kentucky 42-13 last season in Athens, that reached the national championship game before losing in overtime to Alabama.
South Carolina has plenty of firepower returning from last season’s 9-4 edition, plus coach Will Muschamp welcomes back star wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who was injured early in last year’s loss to Kentucky and missed the final 10 games of the season. UK has beaten South Carolina four straight seasons. Extending that streak to five won’t be easy. The Gamecocks should be good.
Florida has a new boss in Dan Mullen, the ex-Mississippi State head coach who will need time to get his own players in Gainesville. Tennessee has a new coach in Jeremy Pruitt, the former Georgia and Alabama defensive coordinator who will need time to get his own players in Knoxville.
Missouri won its final five regular-season games last season and returns a possible All-America quarterback in Drew Lock. Vanderbilt came up one win shy last season of a second consecutive bowl trip, and whipped the archrival Vols 42-24 in Knoxville in the season finale.
So can Kentucky win the East? That’s a tough ask. But the Cats can compete. They’ll need to split their four league road games to be a factor. And if they can find a way to win three of the four — which would probably mean snapping that 31-game losing streak and beating Florida at The Swamp — the Cats could make that Nov. 3 game against the Bulldogs at Kroger Field interesting, at least.
To get to five league wins, however, and finish above .500 in SEC play for the first time in four decades, Kentucky will have to pull an upset at home. The Cats figure to be home dogs against Mississippi State and Georgia. The South Carolina game could be a toss-up. UK will probably be favored over Vanderbilt, but there’s a lot of ground between now and Oct. 20 at Kroger Field. Still, for Stoops and this program, a winning SEC record could be a definite step forward.
A third consecutive bowl appearance would be a step forward, as well. I know, there are a ton of bowl games. All you need is six wins in a dozen games. There are numerous examples of coaches making bowl games and still getting fired. Everything is relative. And for Kentucky, given its history, a third straight trip to a bowl, any bowl, represents progress.
To be sure, by itself, a third straight bowl game doesn’t represent a giant leap forward. But it’s not a step backward, either. And in his sixth season, with a veteran team, Stoops can’t afford to retreat. He needs the momentum to move forward. Step by step.
Kentucky football coaches since 1946
Kentucky football 2018 schedule