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How to define progress for Mark Stoops in his fifth season at Kentucky

UK football's four opportunities to have a breakthrough season

In his fifth year coaching football at the University of Kentucky, Mark Stoops has ample opportunity to end negative streaks and make positive history.
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In his fifth year coaching football at the University of Kentucky, Mark Stoops has ample opportunity to end negative streaks and make positive history.

Mark Stoops acknowledges it feels weird entering the 2017 college football season as the only FBS head coach in his family.

For 18 years, from 1999 until his surprise retirement this summer, Bob Stoops had been one of the faces of college football as head man at Oklahoma. For eight years, 2004 to 2011, Mike Stoops was head coach at Arizona.

Now, as Mark Stoops begins his fifth season as Kentucky Wildcats coach, he alone carries the Stoops brothers’ head coaching banner.

“It is a little bit strange,” Mark Stoops said Monday at his first weekly news conference of 2017. “Certainly, if I see a clip once in a while promoting college football and I see the Sooners on there, it definitely is a little different for me, that’s for sure.”

Oklahoma Texas Tech Football
After 18 years as Oklahoma head football coach, Bob Stoops stepped down before the 2017 season. That leaves his younger brother, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, as the only FBS head man in the family. Brad Tollefson Associated Press

On the Monday before his team faces Southern Mississippi to kick off the season, Mark Stoops seemed loose.

The Kentucky coach said he believes the 2017 Cats “are an improved football team” over the 2016 edition (7-6) that gave UK its first winning season since 2009 and its first bowl trip since 2010.

Asked his expectations for his fifth season at UK, Stoops pointed out that he said a year ago it was important to make a bowl game. His inference was that remains the goal.

“It’s important to see progress,” Stoops said. “However that is (reflected) in wins and losses, we’ll see.”

So what would progress look like in year five of Stoops’ era?

Offensively, Kentucky needs to build on the identity it created a year ago when it morphed into a physical, run-focused attack that produced two 1,000-yard rushers.

A challenge in 2017 is keeping that going now that veteran running backs Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp have departed, leaving last year’s freshman sensation, Benny Snell, as the focus of opposing defenses. The path to another punishing Cats running game seems more complicated now that injury and illness have created some uncertainty along a veteran offensive line.

Now that UK has finally stated that Stephen Johnson is entering the season as starting QB ahead of Drew Barker, it will be fascinating to see if Stoops and his offensive coaches can handle that situation adroitly enough to avoid a divisive quarterback controversy.

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, foreground, had Stephen Johnson, background, listed No. 1 on the UK depth chart at quarterback for the Southern Mississippi game.

Defensively, Kentucky just needs to get better. Sure, UK won seven games in 2016 after enduring losing seasons in Stoops’ first three years; however, statistically last year’s was the worst defense of the past four in terms of points allowed (31.3 per game) and yards allowed (434.2 per game).

Given Stoops’ defensive background, it is surprising UK has not shown more advancement at stopping people.

In the big picture, the optimal goal for Kentucky would be to top last season’s seven wins.

Getting to eight victories in a regular season would be a historic feather in Stoops’ coaching cap. Kentucky has not done that since Jerry Claiborne’s Hall of Fame Bowl championship team went 8-3 in the 1984 regular season (before beating Wisconsin in the bowl for a ninth victory).

Jerry Claiborne is the last Kentucky coach to lead the Wildcats to eight wins in a regular season in 1984. Charles Bertram

The basement goal is just get bowl-eligible again. That would allow Kentucky to reap the benefits of extra postseason practice for a second straight year. It could allow UK to maintain enough recruiting momentum to hold its current slate of verbal commitments.

From a historical perspective, UK football coaches during what we used to call the Commonwealth Stadium era have been all over the map in terms of their fifth-season success.

Fran Curci went 10-1 in his fifth year (1977). Bill Curry went 1-10 (1994). Jerry Claiborne was 5-5-1 (1986). Rich Brooks went 8-5 (2007). (For varying reasons, Hal Mumme, Guy Morriss and Joker Phillips did not make it to a fifth year).

Fran Curci, left, went 10-1 in his fifth season as University of Kentucky football coach in 1977. Ron Garrison

For year five, “it’s important,” Mark Stoops emphasizes, “to see progress.”

In the meantime, now that Mark Stoops is carrying the head coaching mantle for his very famous family alone, the UK coach says he wants to get Bob Stoops to Lexington to see some Kentucky games.

“I hope so. We’ll see,” Mark Stoops said. “(Bob’s) a tough guy to track down right now. He’s enjoying himself. But, yeah, I’m sure he’ll plan on getting here.”

Season opener

Kentucky at Southern Miss

4 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network)

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