Less than 12 hours after her favorites had shut down Mississippi State, the Kentucky fan I ran into Sunday morning asked the most pertinent, albeit rhetorical question.
“How long have we waited to have a football team like this?” she said.
Well, let’s see, the wait for a team finally ranked in the Associated Press college top 25, as the Cats are at No. 17 on Sunday, has been since 2007. The wait for a team that has started 2-0 in the SEC has lasted much longer, over four decades, in fact. Try 1977.
And yet, the early lesson of this Kentucky football season, and the lesson of Mark Stoops’ six-year tenure as the UK football coach is that for some things you just have to keep the faith, and wait.
“I don’t like getting into all these messages that I tell you about with the team or whatever,” said Stoops on Saturday after his team’s 28-7 squashing of the Bulldogs. “But I talked a lot about ... you reap what you sow and sooner or later you’re going to get paid and you’re going to benefit from that. And you don’t know when.”
Now is when.
Since he arrived in 2013, the former Florida State defensive coordinator has built his program slowly, steadily, one recruiting class at a time, one facility upgrade at a time, one developmental step at a time. In a microwave society, the win total has followed suit, from two in 2013, to five each in both 2014 and 2015, to seven each in 2016 and 2017.
From the final year of the Joker Phillips regime through the first three seasons under Stoops, Kentucky was 14-34 overall and 4-28 in the SEC. Over the last two seasons, plus the first four games of this campaign, UK is 18-12 overall and 10-8 in conference play.
True, impressive starts do not guarantee impressive seasons, even when that start includes snapping a 31-year losing streak to Florida by beating the 25th-ranked Gators in Gainesville, or besting 14th-ranked Mississippi State by three touchdowns before a raucous-in-the-rain home crowd. There are eight games to go, however. At least.
“We have another opportunity to prove it seven days from now,” Stoops said Saturday.
And yet, there is enough talent, depth and physical presence to make you believe this is a team built not on the sand of a quick-fix solution, but on a hard-rock foundation that can stand the test of a long season. This is a team that lost its starting left tackle seven days before the opener and is still 11th nationally in rushing offense. This is a team that lost a starting defensive tackle before the start of training camp and is 11th nationally in total defense.
That’s recruiting, followed by development. “We’ve got some dudes on this team,” said tight end C.J. Conrad on a night when he made a catch he termed the best of his entire career — middle school, high school or college. “Those guys making plays out there are our best players.”
Some of whom we’ve barely met. One of the more telling plays Saturday came with 8:09 left in the fourth quarter, UK up 14-7, when Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s pass overshot its target and landed in the arms of a UK safety named Tyrell Ajian.
Who’s that? I would be lying if I didn’t admit that same question was asked in the press box. The practically unknown redshirt freshman from Mansfield, Ohio, stepped in for the injured Jordan Griffin to return his first career interception 35 yards and set up, on the very next snap, Benny Snell’s 36-yard score. ”We’ve just got a lot of guys who can make plays,” said safety Mike Edwards.
The process of collecting and coaching and developing those guys might have taken longer than some would have liked, but patience is a virtue. So, too, is persistence. Kentucky’s football season is far from over, but no one could have asked for a better start. No one.
“You’ve got to keep on working and keep on doing it,” Stoops said Saturday, “and eventually you’re going to get paid many times over.”
SEC football standings
Kentucky against ranked teams under Mark Stoops