Mark Story

How Mark Stoops can produce a Big Blue breakthrough in 2017

Mark Stoops celebrated after Kentucky upset Louisville last year. The 2016 season was the first time UK beat U of L, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina all in the same year since 1998.
Mark Stoops celebrated after Kentucky upset Louisville last year. The 2016 season was the first time UK beat U of L, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and South Carolina all in the same year since 1998. Associated Press

Last football season, Mark Stoops coached Kentucky to its first winning season since 2009 and first bowl trip since 2010.

There were at least two other Big Blue breakthroughs, however, that did not garner enough attention.

UK won three games against SEC East foes in 2016.

Since the SEC went to football divisions in 1992, no Kentucky team had ever done that before.

In 2016, Stoops and his troops claimed victories over South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Louisville in the same season.

UK had not beaten those four “benchmark rivals” in the same year since Tim Couch, Craig Yeast and Co. turned the trick in 1998.

To keep the positive momentum going in 2017, Stoops and UK have another target-rich field of opportunities to create Big Blue breakthroughs.

1.) Big Blue breakthrough opportunity: Beat South Carolina for a fourth straight season.

The historical context: Kentucky will take a three-game winning streak over South Carolina to Columbia on Sept. 16.

Other than Vanderbilt, UK has not beaten an SEC foe in four consecutive seasons since Bear Bryant’s Wildcats whipped Florida four straight from 1948 through 1951 (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 four consecutive seasons during that stretch).

Why it matters: To succeed in football at Kentucky, South Carolina is a team you have to be competitive against. After losing 10 in a row to the Gamecocks (2000-2009), UK has won four of the last seven.

2.) Big Blue breakthrough opportunity: Win multiple SEC road games in the same season.

The historical context: UK has not won more than one league contest outside Lexington in a season since Rich Brooks, Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke and crew won three — Auburn, Vanderbilt and Georgia — in 2009.

In fact, since Brooks retired after the 2009 season, Kentucky has only two SEC road wins — at South Carolina (2015) and at Missouri (2016) — total.

Why it matters: Kentucky’s seven-win season (7-6) a year ago was fueled by three SEC home wins — Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. UK will face all three of those teams on the road in 2017.

Any aspirations of a special Wildcats season this fall would seem likely to require at least two wins from among those three league road games.

3.) Big Blue breakthrough opportunity: Beat Florida, Tennessee and/or Georgia.

The historical context: In his college football preview magazine, the venerable Phil Steele notes that Kentucky is 0-15 the last five years against the traditional SEC East trio of kingpins.

Actually, UK’s futility against the historically best programs in its division is much more profound than that. Kentucky has lost 30 in a row to Florida, 31 of 32 against Tennessee and 24 of 28 to Georgia.

Since the season (1973) when the venue formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium opened, UK is 5-39 against both Florida and Tennessee and 7-37 vs. Georgia.

Why it matters: Kentucky having its first winning record in SEC games since 1977 or winning its first league title since 1976 almost certainly depends on the Wildcats becoming more competitive with the SEC East’s old-money set.

Think about the impact on Wildcats football if Kentucky could improve enough to start beating Florida, Tennessee and Georgia each, say, three times a decade.

4.) Big Blue breakthrough opportunity: Win nine games in a season.

The historical context: UK has not enjoyed a nine-win year since Jerry Claiborne coached the Cats (9-3) to the Hall of Fame Bowl championship in 1984. Of all power five conference football programs, only Indiana (1967) has gone longer without a nine-win season than Kentucky.

Why it matters: At a time when UK has pumped many millions of dollars into both stadium renovation and into a swank, state-of-the-art football complex, a nine-win season would allow Stoops to show irrefutable proof that he is a head coach capable of maximizing Kentucky’s investment in football.

Kentucky schedule

(Home games in all capital letters; Game times listed where available.)

Sept. 2: At Southern Mississippi, 4

Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY

Sept. 16: At South Carolina

Sept. 23: FLORIDA

Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN

Oct. 7: MISSOURI

Oct. 21: At Mississippi St.

Oct. 28: TENNESSEE

Nov. 4: MISSISSIPPI

Nov. 11: At Vanderbilt

Nov. 18: At Georgia

Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE

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