Mark Stoops uncomfortable basking in success
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.