Mark Story

It feels like Mark Stoops and UK football are back at a program tipping point

Mark Stoops has invested five years of sweat and toil into Kentucky football. His labor has pushed UK from a 2-10 irrelevancy in 2013 to back-to-back 7-5 regular seasons with consecutive bowl trips.

Yet if history tells us anything, it is that UK football progress that takes years to produce is vulnerable to slipping away in an instant. That is why Kentucky’s 44-17 loss to Louisville on Saturday had such a bad “feel” to it.

The Wildcats’ debacle at the hands of Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals before a less-than-full Kroger Field crowd of 56,186 had the feel of a program nearing a tipping point.

It wasn’t just that Kentucky was completely dominated by a team it had beaten the year before, or that UK’s defense was so ineffectual that Bobby Petrino’s offense produced an astounding 32 first downs on its 64 offensive plays.

The troubles began the night before the game when senior offensive lineman Nick Haynes — a player on the cover of UK’s 2017 football media guide — took to Twitter to decry in harsh terms how he felt he’d been ill treated by the Wildcats coaching staff.

Once the game started, Kentucky standout linebacker Jordan Jones — another player on the Cats media guide cover — was unable to maintain emotional composure. Before Stoops finally pulled him in the third quarter, Jones was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and two personal fouls for his actions after plays had concluded.

Afterward, Stoops said UK “did not play with the discipline and the character that this team has. That’s not acceptable. That’s not OK, and I was very disappointed in that, and that needs to be addressed and improved. So that’s probably the biggest disappointment.”

Across UK football history, I can’t imagine there have been many winning seasons that have ended with so much of the Kentucky fan base seeming disgruntled as this year.

In the case of “Mark Stoops v. The Long Suffering UK Football Fans,” there is merit on both sides.

UK backers who feel Stoops faced a schedule in 2017 that provided UK with a golden chance to produce a historic season have a valid point.

Traditional SEC East kingpins Florida (4-7, 3-5 SEC) and Tennessee (4-8, 0-8) were horrid, and are unlikely to again be so concurrently weak.

Kentucky did not have to face SEC West titans Auburn, Alabama or LSU, instead drawing a home game with scandal-plagued Mississippi as its rotating foe from the West.

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Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops led the Wildcats to seven wins, including four SEC victories and three road wins, in 2017. But Stoops and UK lost the two games, Florida and Louisville, that Wildcats fans most wanted to win and did so in ways that left a bad taste with many. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

In Stoops’ defense, UK would have had a team fully capable of taking advantage of its favorable schedule had it not been hit with a wave of offseason attrition among difference-making offensive performers with remaining eligibility.

Big-play running back Boom Williams, a 1,170-yards rusher in 2016, turned pro a year early (only to go undrafted and fail to make an NFL roster). Stretch-the-field wide receiver Jeff Badet (21.6 yards a catch) graduate transferred to Oklahoma for his final season.

Veteran offensive guard Ramsey Meyers gave up his final year of football. Starting left tackle Cole Mosier and wide receiver Dorian Baker (team-high 55 catches in 2015) were lost to season-ending injuries in camp.

Offensive guard Haynes endured a substantial weight loss as he managed Type 1 diabetes and was not the player he had been the season before.

As I tried to point out back in the summer, at Kentucky you cannot lose that much offensive production from players who could have been on the field and not feel it in the bottom line.

Even so, Kentucky still managed four SEC victories, three road wins and claimed victories over three teams that went on to become bowl eligible — Southern Mississippi (8-4), South Carolina (8-4) and Missouri (7-5).

Yet those positives never seemed to resonate with a fan base that was devastated when Kentucky blew a 27-14 fourth-quarter lead to lose its 31st straight game to Florida, 28-27, in September.

In the other game that mattered most to Kentucky fans, Louisville, the Wildcats melted down on the field and off.

So even with the one-year contract extension through the 2022 season Stoops earned when UK got to seven wins, Kentucky and its coach enter bowl season needing to flip a narrative that turned really negative last weekend.

It feels like Kentucky football is back in a familiar place, once again at a program tipping point.

Selection Sunday

College Football Playoff Selection Show

What: Pairings for national semifinals and all other bowl games to be announced.

When: Noon Sunday

TV: ESPN

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