I feel a tad sorry for Mark Stoops.
When Stoops came to Kentucky as head football coach before the 2013 season, he inherited a program in free fall coming off a 2-10 season.
In the five seasons since, Stoops has built Kentucky from 2-10 (2013) through back-to-back 5-7 records to two straight 7-5 regular seasons that ended in bowl games.
Yet, in spite of the fact that no Kentucky coach since 1984 has produced a better regular-season mark than Stoops did the past two years, a certain ennui seems to afflict the UK football fan base entering 2018.
This listlessness reigns in spite of the fact that UK has 17 starters back from last season’s team that 1.) won three road games; 2.) beat three teams that made bowls; 3.) won four SEC games; 4.) made the Music City Bowl.
As Kentucky prepares to open its preseason training camp with Friday’s Media Day, the question is what can Stoops (26-36 as top Cat through five seasons) and a veteran UK team realistically do this coming season to get the Big Blue Nation re-energized about football?
1. Beat Florida.
No one needs to remind The Long-Suffering UK Football Fan that the Wildcats have lost an embarrassing 31 straight to the Gators.
Last year’s defeat against UF was a killer. UK blew a 27-14 lead in the fourth quarter to lose 28-27 in a game in which Kentucky gave up two touchdown passes to Florida wide receivers who were uncovered at the line of scrimmage.
That loss dealt a blow to the Stoops approval rating among the BBN that has not been easy for the coach to overcome.
Under Stoops, UK has had three legitimate chances to end the Florida streak. The Cats fell 36-30 in triple overtime in The Swamp in 2014. Kentucky lost 14-9 in Lexington in 2015, then came last year’s crushing disappointment.
This season, the Gators have 19 starters back from last year’s 4-7 slog. In Dan Mullen, Florida has a new head coach who had the whammy on UK in his prior job, going 8-1 vs. Kentucky at Mississippi State.
But the Cats visit Gainesville this year the second week of the season. It would seem at least possible that Mullen may still be working out the kinks with a new team.
The best way to undo the damage last year’s late collapse against Florida did to Stoops’ standing with the UK fan base would be to finish the job against the Gators this year.
2. Beat Louisville.
In the first three years after Bobby Petrino returned to U of L as head coach (2014-16), the Kentucky-Louisville game was decided in the fourth quarter each season. The Cardinals pulled out the first two but UK prevailed in 2016.
Last year at Kroger Field, a revenge-minded U of L embarrassed Kentucky. Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals rocked the Wildcats 44-17 in a game in which Louisville never punted and recorded first downs on a whopping 32 of the 64 plays it ran from scrimmage.
The good news for Kentucky in 2018 is two-pronged. Jackson has taken his transcendent talent to the Baltimore Ravens.
Also, the Cats get the Cards in The Ville. In the modern history of the Governor’s Cup rivalry, UK is 5-5 against U of L in Louisville but 4-10 against the Cardinals in Lexington.
3. Get to eight wins in the regular season and win a bowl.
Jerry Claiborne’s 1984 Hall of Fame Bowl champions were the last Kentucky football team to win eight games in the regular season, then added a ninth victory by beating Wisconsin in the postseason.
Among power-five conference football programs, only Indiana (1967) has gone longer since winning nine games than Kentucky.
When he was hired, UK fans believed Stoops could be the head coach who changed the paradigm of what is possible in Kentucky football.
Stoops came to UK after a successful stint as defensive coordinator at traditional football titan Florida State. There, obviously, is a level of football credibility that attaches to the Kentucky head coach’s last name.
On his arrival in Lexington, Stoops was able to marshal booster resources that traditionally had backed the Cats’ men’s basketball program. As a result, Stoops helped produce a major investment into football that led to a dramatic upgrade in Kentucky’s facilities.
In these impatient times, what has been a slow, steady build under Stoops has seen fan belief in the Kentucky coach waver.
To recreate belief and excitement among Kentucky backers for Wildcats football, 2018 is when Stoops and his very-experienced team need to produce the breakthrough UK backers crave.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory
Important upcoming UK football dates
Friday: Media Day
Saturday: Fan Day
Sept. 1: Season opener at home vs. Central Michigan