Mark Stoops uncomfortable basking in success
Let’s take a brief moment to review what a season of unusual bounty 2018 was for the Kentucky Wildcats football program:
Kentucky (10-3) reached 10 wins in a season for only the third time (1950, 1977) in school history. UK played in a late-season game with the SEC East championship riding on the outcome for the first time ever.
The Wildcats’ 5-3 record in the SEC was their first winning mark in league games since 1977. It was only UK’s eighth winning record in league play since the Southeastern Conference began in 1933.
Kentucky’s 27-24 victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl in Orlando was UK’s first win in a New Year’s Day Bowl since the 1952 Cotton Bowl.
UK was ranked 12th in the final Associated Press Top 25, the school’s highest season-ending rating since 1977 (sixth).
Kentucky pass-rushing force Josh Allen swept a bevy of national Defensive Player of the Year awards. Star running back Benny Snell broke UK’s all-time rushing record. Wildcats Coach Mark Stoops was chosen SEC Coach of the Year by both his coaching peers and the AP.
Moving forward, the task for Stoops and the 2019 Cats is daunting: What do you do for an encore?
At Kentucky, you cannot lose difference-making talents like Allen and Snell plus your entire starting defensive backfield and not feel it in the bottom line.
So if you are expecting UK to go 9-3 again in its 2019 regular season, you are listening more to your heart than your mind.
Still, the task for Kentucky football in 2019 is not to let the wave of program momentum generated a season ago evaporate. Toward that end, here are four things UK can realistically achieve to make the coming football season qualify as a success.
1.) Extend some of the streaks.
Kentucky’s rise from SEC East bottom-feeder to respectability can be traced to UK win streaks over three division foes.
This fall, beating Kentucky will be a holy war for those three teams.
Two of the games, at South Carolina (Sept. 28) and at Vanderbilt (Nov. 16), are on the road. The third, Missouri (Oct. 26), is the Saturday after Kentucky plays Georgia — a schedule slot that has not been conducive to UK success in the Stoops era.
The Wildcats are 0-6 under Stoops in games played immediately after facing Georgia.
Given the challenging game “set ups,” if UK can preserve at least two of its three positive streaks over SEC East rivals in 2019 that should be deemed a good outcome.
2.) Take advantage of eight home games.
Not only will Kentucky get to play eight times at Kroger Field this fall, four of the games — Arkansas (2-10), Tennessee (5-7), Tennessee-Martin (2-9) and Louisville (2-10) — are against teams that had losing records in 2018.
Two others, Toledo (7-6) and Eastern Michigan (7-6), are against Mid-American Conference foes.
Florida (10-3) and Missouri (8-5) are the only Power Five conference teams UK will play at home in the coming season that had winning marks in 2018.
UK has a golden chance to become bowl eligible in 2019 merely by taking care of business on its home field.
3.) Beat Louisville in Lexington.
The defining trait of the modern Governor’s Cup football rivalry is the home-field disadvantage.
Since Kentucky and Louisville resumed playing in 1994, UK is 6-5 vs. U of L in Cardinal Stadium.
However, the Wildcats are a dismal 4-10 against the Cardinals in Lexington.
In the 21st century, Kentucky is 2-7 against Louisville on the Cats’ home field.
During the current decade, UK is 0-4 vs. U of L in Lexington.
With Louisville coming off a shipwreck of a 2018 season and breaking in a new coaching staff in 2019, it will be calamitous (in a sports context) if Kentucky doesn’t finally pluck the Cardinals at Kroger Field this season.
4.) Stay above water.
Before last year, Kentucky had not won as many as eight games in a regular season since 1984.
If the Wildcats could somehow reach eight victories in back-to-back years, it would be a striking show of program strength.
However, the bottom line for UK to be judged a success in 2019 is simpler: Just produce a winning record.
The prior two times Kentucky reached at least nine wins (1977 and 1984) in a season, the Wildcats “slipped back” to losing records the following years (4-6-1 in 1978; 5-6 in 1985).
Avoiding that fate in 2019 would make the coming season a clear success for Stoops and troops.