John Clay

John Clay: After a disappointing end to 2015, pressure awaits Mark Stoops in 2016

After his three seasons (2010 through 2012) as Kentucky’s football coach, Joker Phillips was 13-24 overall, 4-20 in the SEC and unceremoniously relieved of his duties.

After his three seasons (2013-15) as Kentucky’s football coach, Mark Stoops is 12-24 overall, 4-20 in the SEC, and we can say with a high level of certainty that he will not be relieved of his duties.

What we can also say is that there will be plenty of pressure on Stoops to produce in year four, especially after the way year three came to a close.

The Cats’ 38-24 loss to visiting and arch-rival Louisville on Saturday covered all-too-familiar ground. A strong start was followed by a weak finish.

The enthusiasm of the early going was replaced by the frustration of another late collapse.

It started so well. A team that had intercepted eight passes all season, Kentucky picked off three in Louisville’s first six possessions. Josh Forrest turned his theft into an 89-yard pick-six for a 21-0 lead. Kentucky was up 24-7 at the half.

Then it all fell apart. Playing without its best player, Boom Williams, who injured his elbow on the final play of the first quarter, Kentucky managed all of 83 yards in the second half – and 53 of those came on one play, a pass to Dorian Baker.

Kentucky earned 12 first downs in the first two quarters. They earned two first downs in the final two.

Defensively, the Cats had no answer for the fleet feet of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, whose rookie inexperience was offset by his ridiculous athleticism. After replacing starter Kyle Bolin, Jackson rushed for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 17 attempts. The game’s biggest mystery was why U of L coach Bobby Petrino didn’t start Jackson in the first place?

For Kentucky football in the Stoops Era, the mystery is what continues to go wrong the second half of the season? UK started 5-1 in 2014. It finished 5-7. This year, Kentucky started 4-2 with SEC wins over South Carolina and Missouri, but lost five of its last six to end up 5-7. If these were two dill pickles from the same jar, there was only one difference: Charlotte wasn’t on the 2014 schedule.

That’s why this Governor’s Cup was the most important game of the Stoops’ Era. Beat Louisville and Kentucky would earn the program’s first bowl bid since 2010, easing the questions and criticism. Lose to Louisville, however, and the knocks would only multiply. And Kentucky lost.

“It's a setback,” Stoops admitted afterward. “Nobody wants to see a change more than myself and the staff and these players that are working hard.”

Saturday’s loss didn’t feature the organizational problems that plagued Kentucky in some previous defeats, most notably the 24-17 loss at Vanderbilt. Instead, it called into question one aspect that has been almost accepted as a Stoops strength since he arrived from Florida State – recruiting.

Over the last three years, Kentucky’s classes have finished an average of 27th in Rivals’ recruiting rankings. Louisville’s classes have averaged 41st-best. And yet Louisville has won five straight meetings. The best player on the field Saturday was Jackson, a true freshman out of Boynton Beach, Fla.

“This won't hurt our momentum in recruiting and developing our team and our program,” Stoops promised Saturday, “We’re going to continue to get better, believe me.”

“We have a lot of good young players,” said Barker. “There’s definitely a lot to look forward to.”

That may be true. Three years isn’t enough time to give any coach to develop a program, especially one minus a winning tradition while competing in the SEC.

On the other hand, to whom much is given, much is required. Kentucky spent $120 million redoing Commonwealth Stadium this season. It is spending $50 million more on a new football training and practice facility. Stoops is earning $3.25 million in 2015. You don’t spend that kind of money without expecting a return on your investment.

“We need to get better across the board to get where we want to go,” Stoops said Saturday.

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