Mark Story

Can UK’s Mark Stoops pass a big coaching test vs. Mississippi State?

Mark Stoops will earn some $4.35 million for coaching Kentucky Wildcats football in 2019.

The current week offers the UK head man an opportunity to prove worthy of the big paycheck.

On Saturday, Kentucky (2-1, 0-1 SEC) travels to Mississippi State (2-1, 0-0 SEC) for the kind of “swing game” whose outcome shapes the arc of a team’s season.

The Wildcats will enter Starkville off an excruciating, come-from-ahead loss to Florida in which a 21-10 Kentucky fourth-quarter lead turned into a 29-21 defeat.

“I was very disappointed in the outcome of the (Florida) game,” Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference at Kroger Field. “But (I was) so pleased with so many aspects of it and the good things that we did.

“There were a lot of positives that come from this past game. As I mentioned before, there’s so many plays in a game. We played an awful lot of those plays in (the Florida) game very good.”

Now, the task facing Stoops this week is how to get his team to avoid a post-Florida hangover.

As recent UK history shows, that is not an easy assignment after such a stinging defeat. In each of the past two seasons, Kentucky has followed up an especially difficult loss with a clunker of a performance the following week.

Two years ago, UK suffered through similar fourth-quarter frustration vs. Florida as it did this season. In 2017, the Cats saw a 27-14 Kentucky advantage morph into a 28-27 Gators victory.

The following week, the Wildcats turned up with the emotional tank running near empty. A listless UK went down to the final play with MAC foe Eastern Michigan before surviving in a 24-20 squeaker.

Afterward, Stoops was blunt about the carry-over effect from the painful Florida defeat.

“The fact of the matter is that our players were crushed by that loss,” Stoops said following the narrow escape over EMU. “It was a tough one to shake.”

Last year, Kentucky fell 34-17 to Georgia in the contest that determined the SEC East championship.

Next game, UK turned up flatter than a fritter at Tennessee and absorbed a 24-7 defeat to an otherwise mediocre Volunteers team.

“Not a very good effort,” a subdued Stoops said that day. “It starts with me and, really, ends with me.”

Now, after another heart-wrenching defeat to Florida, the job of seeing that UK avoids another desultory, post-heartbreak showing Saturday against Mississippi State starts with Stoops.

Kentucky not having a letdown is “a big, big focus this week,” Stoops said. “I talk about each situation every week. With this, moving on to Mississippi State, we don’t have much time to dwell on (falling to Florida).”

Sitting at 2-1 and facing back-to-back games on the road at Mississippi State and South Carolina (1-2, 0-1 SEC), Kentucky has much riding on these next two weeks.

Even if UK loses both, Kentucky should still be able to achieve bowl eligibility since the Wildcats have five potentially winnable home games remaining plus a trip to Vanderbilt.

However, if Stoops and troops aspire to follow up last year’s 10-3 breakthrough with another “expand the paradigm of what is possible at Kentucky” kind of season, the outcome of the next two games is crucial.

Mississippi State has not been an especially hospitable locale for Kentucky under Stoops. The UK coach is 0-3 in Starkville and has seen the Bulldogs outscore the Wildcats there by a combined 115-45..

Overall, Kentucky has not won at MSU since 2008 — when true freshman Randall Cobb quarterbacked the Cats to a bowl-eligibility-clinching 14-13 win.

This year, a relatively youthful Kentucky team will travel south with several players in key spots who will be getting their first exposure to the cowbell-ringing Davis Wade Stadium fan atmosphere.

“They’ll be rocking their cowbells, it will be a raucous crowd,” Stoops said. “(UK has players) that haven’t been exposed to that yet. We’ll try to get ready for that this week.”

The trip to MSU will be Kentucky’s first road game of 2019. UK has won its initial contest on an opponents’ home field in three of the past four seasons.

To have a shot at doing that for a fourth time in five years, Stoops has to help his team shake off any lingering Florida disappointment.

By Saturday, the Wildcats will need their emotional engines revved back to full go if they are to earn a SEC road win in a challenging venue.

Says Stoops: “It’s next man up, next battle, next punch, next time to get another opportunity against a quality team on the road.”

It’s the kind of week where a head coach earns his money.

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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.
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