Mark Story

What can Mark Stoops do for an encore? Five possible UK breakthroughs in 2019.

Mark Stoops uncomfortable basking in success

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday, March 4, 2019, if he had time to sit back and enjoy the success of last season. The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018 with a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday, March 4, 2019, if he had time to sit back and enjoy the success of last season. The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018 with a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.

The 2018 Kentucky Wildcats football season was a banner year for Big Blue breakthroughs.

UK beat Florida for the first time since 1986.

Mark Stoops and Co. produced Kentucky’s first winning SEC record since 1977.

In beating Penn State 27-24 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, the Wildcats won a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time since 1952.

Now, as UK faces the 2019 season without departed program staples in school all-time leading rusher Benny Snell and national defensive player of the year Josh Allen, the question is: What do Stoops and troops do for an encore?

After his team's 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019, in Orlando, Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked which of his stars will he miss most -- Benny Snell or Josh Allen? UK finished the season 10-3.

There remains a target-rich environment of possible breakthroughs available to the 2019 Cats.

Target of opportunity: Beat an SEC West foe other than Mississippi State.

The back story: Since Stoops’ first season as Kentucky head coach in 2013, the Wildcats are 2-4 against permanent league inter-division foe Mississippi State and 0-6 against all other SEC West teams.

Kentucky’s rotating West Division opponent in 2019 is Arkansas on Oct. 12 at Kroger Field. A season ago, in Chad Morris’ first season as boss Hog, the Razorbacks went 2-10, 0-8 in league games.

Odds of a Big Blue breakthrough: Strong. Arkansas will surely be improved in year two under its coaching staff, but this is a game UK should win.

Kentucky running back Benny Snell was tackled by Texas A&M linebacker Otaro Alaka during UK’s 20-14 overtime loss to the Aggies last season. Michael Wyke AP

Target of opportunity two: Beat Louisville in Lexington.

The back story: In the modern Governor’s Cup football rivalry, the home field has not been an advantage. Kentucky has beaten Louisville two straight at Cardinal Stadium and leads the modern series in The Ville 6-5.

However, the Cats’ record vs. the Cards in Lexington is a dismal 4-10 since 1994. Kentucky has not beaten Louisville in Lexington in the current decade (0-4) and has only beaten U of L in the venue now known as Kroger Field twice (2007 and 2009) this century.

Odds of a Big Blue breakthrough: Strong. Coming off a 2-10 season, Louisville will be in transition in 2019 as new head man Scott Satterfield tries to clean up the departed Bobby Petrino’s mess.

Kentucky has not beaten Louisville in Lexington since Randall Cobb led the Wildcats to a 31-27 victory over the Cardinals in 2009.

Target of opportunity three: Beat Tennessee in Lexington for a second consecutive time.

The back story: In 2017, Stephen Johnson’s dive into the end zone was the winning touchdown in a 29-26 UK victory over UT.

Kentucky has not beaten the Rocky Toppers in back-to-back games in Lexington since the Wildcats whipped the Volunteers in 1957 (20-6) and 1959 (20-0), the last two of four straight home wins for the Cats over the Vols.

Odds of a Big Blue breakthrough: Medium. Last year, in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as Tennessee coach, the Volunteers (5-7, 2-6 SEC) were the worst team in the SEC East.

Nevertheless, a struggling Tennessee beat Kentucky (24-7) in Knoxville last season. As UK backers know all too well, nothing ever comes easy for the Cats against the Vols.

Stephen Johnson game-winner vs Tennessee
Stephen Johnson dove into the end zone for the winning touchdown in Kentucky’s 29-26 win over Tennessee at Kroger Field in 2017. Ken Weaver

Target of opportunity four: Beat Florida in back-to-back seasons.

The back story: A season ago, Kentucky upset No. 25 Florida 27-16 at The Swamp, ending a 31-game losing streak against the Gators.

UK has not bested UF in back-to-back seasons since Fran Curci’s Cats beat Florida in 1976 (28-9 in Lexington) and 1977 (14-7 in Gainesville).

Odds of a Big Blue breakthrough: Medium. Under Stoops, Kentucky has played Florida tough. Before last season’s victory, UK had losses to the Gators by one point (2017), five points (2015) and six points (in triple overtime in 2014).

With the capable Dan Mullen starting his second year as head coach, the Florida program should be on an upward arc.

Josh Allen
Kentucky star Josh Allen (41) clinched UK’s streak-busting 27-16 win over then-No. 25 Florida when he forced a fumble from Gators’ quarterback Feleipe Franks that the Wildcats’ Davonte Robinson returned for a touchdown on the game’s final play. Monica Herndon TNS

Target of opportunity five: Produce a winning SEC record in back-to-back seasons.

The back story: When Kentucky went 5-3 in SEC games in 2018, it gave UK its first winning mark in league contests since 1977.

Kentucky has now had eight winning league records since 1933 — 1949 (4-1), 1950 (5-1, league champions) and 1953 (4-1-1) under Bear Bryant; 1954 (5-2) under Blanton Collier; 1964 (4-2) under Charlie Bradshaw; 1976 (5-1, league co-champions) and 1977 (6-0) under Curci; and last season under Stoops.

Mark Stoops after Missouri
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops celebrated with his team after the Wildcats clinched a winning SEC record in 2018 with a 15-14 comeback victory at Missouri. UK Athletics

Odds of a Big Blue breakthrough: Low but not impossible. Of Kentucky’s four SEC home games in 2019 — Florida, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee — the Cats will need to win at least three to have a viable shot at a second straight winning SEC season.

UK’s four road conference games — Mississippi State, South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt — will feature three teams looking for revenge after having lost to UK a season ago plus national power UGa.

A second straight winning SEC season will be heavy lifting for a Wildcats team replacing multiple difference-making players from a season ago.


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.