Mark Story

Mark Story: It sounds crazy, but Stoops' Cats may be in midst of 'successful' 0-4 stretch

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops questioned a second-quarter call at South Carolina on Saturday. UK didn't avoid a loss, but it did dodge a 51-point beating this time.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops questioned a second-quarter call at South Carolina on Saturday. UK didn't avoid a loss, but it did dodge a 51-point beating this time. Herald-Leader

In his first season as Kentucky head football coach, Mark Stoops has likely faced the most difficult four-game stretch in school history. With three of those games against ranked foes down and No. 1 Alabama looming, how should we feel about Kentucky (1-4, 0-2 SEC)?

Glass half-full: A season ago, UK was outscored a combined 108-31 in losses to Louisville, Florida and South Carolina. This year, the Wildcats have again lost to that trio, but by "only" 86-48.

Glass half-empty: Kentucky has actually been outgained by U of L, UF and the "other USC" by more this year (1,347 to 850) than it was last season (1,217-835).

Glass half-full: Two years ago at South Carolina, Kentucky got whacked 54-3. Last Saturday in Columbia, UK fell behind 21-0 in the game's first 15:40 and the Blue appeared headed toward another obliteration. Instead, the Cats showed mettle and made a game out of it before losing 35-28.

Glass half-empty: South Carolina has been letting teams rally from far behind all season. Vanderbilt trailed the Gamecocks 28-10 at halftime and lost 35-25. Central Florida trailed 28-10 with 14:02 left in the game and fell 28-25. Don't forget, the Head Ball Coach's crew played Kentucky without freakishly gifted defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

My verdict: I've always believed you spell "moral victory" like this — L-O-S-S. Yet, I find myself coming down on the glass half-full side of the spectrum on the current UK football season.

Kentucky threw in a clunker in a season-opening loss to Western Kentucky, but since then things have gone about as well as any realistic Wildcats backer could have hoped.

UK is coming off a 2-10 season. It has a brand-new coaching staff that is relying on a plethora of offensive skill players barely out of high school. Given all that, the optimum that Kentucky can hope for from a stretch in which it will have played the nation's No. 7, No. 19, No. 13 and No. 1 teams is:

1. Not get the current Kentucky team so beaten up physically and so beaten down mentally that the Cats have nothing left for the second half of the schedule, which on paper contains more legitimate targets of "victory opportunity" than did the first half.

2. Not get beaten by such humiliating scores that it makes it easier for rival recruiters to pry Stoops' prized 2014 recruiting class away from their Kentucky commitments.

So far, UK has met both objectives. Of course, Alabama is still pending.

The Saban-ic forces come to Lexington amid one of the great runs by any program in college football history.

Consider: The current Alabama starting quarterback, AJ McCarron, has accumulated three BCS championship rings during his time in Nick Saban's program (two as the Tide starter, one as a freshman while sitting out as a redshirt).

In the entire history of the Kentucky program, UK has a claim on one football national title, based retroactively on the Sagarin Ratings for the 1950 season.

Over the past six seasons, Alabama is 15-4 against teams ranked in the AP Top 10.

In the entire history of the Kentucky program, UK has 13 such victories.

Since 2008, Alabama has 66 victories, the most in the country over that stretch.

To count back to Kentucky's most recent 66 wins, one must work from the current year's win over Miami (Ohio) all the way to Oct. 9, 1999.

The general consensus seems to be that the 2013 Crimson Tide, while undefeated (5-0, 2-0) and top-ranked, have yet to hit on all cylinders.

That should be scary for the rest of college football since Alabama already has a neutral-site victory over Virginia Tech, a road win at Texas A&M and a defeat of the SEC's perceived up-and-comer, Mississippi.

"Obviously we know how talented (Alabama) is and how well coached they are," Stoops said. "It's going to be a real tough challenge. But, again, we'll measure (things) by how we play, how we compete and go from there."

During the pre-season, the new UK coach defined what he would regard as success for the current Kentucky season in basic terms. "Just improvement," he said. "Drastic improvement."

In my mind, "improvement" needs to include some UK wins in the second half of this season.

Still, if the Cats put up a stout enough battle against Alabama to keep the mood about the program as positive as it seems now, then, as silly as this sounds, it may be the most "successful" 0-4 stretch in UK history.