Stoops has reasons for optimism at Kentucky


Kentucky’s football team is 2-6 after eight games.

That’s not a surprise.

What is somewhat shocking is the Wildcats, outside of a 42-point loss to top-ranked Alabama, have been competitive every time they’ve stepped on the field this season. During Joker Phillips’ final season in 2012, Kentucky lost by a combined 85 points to three SEC teams with losing records (Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee). A 40-0 stinker to Vanderbilt may have been the low point, but the Commodores did win nine games for the first time in almost a century. No one in Lexington expected a bowl berth during Mark Stoops’ inaugural campaign, so a projected 3-9 finish isn’t all bad. He’s provided the Wildcats with a sense of optimism during a midseason stretch of losses to ranked opponents despite an offense in dire need of playmakers.

Every Saturday, Kentucky’s seemed to be a couple players — or plays — away from being a seven or eight-win football team. A missed tackle on a third-and-short late the fourth quarter at South Carolina sealed a one-score defeat while a rushed incompletion on fourth down in Starkville snuffed out a possible final-minute rally. Those narrow losses are building blocks for a program that hasn’t finished with a winning record since Morgan Newton’s senior season in 2009 and much more respectable than the bevy of defeats that have happened since.

The 7-6 finish in 2009 which featured a bowl-loss to Clemson was sour compared to Kentucky’s ascension two years earlier during Andre Woodson and the Wildcats’ brief stay in the Top 10. Again, Kentucky’s a couple players and a reliable running game away from getting back to that point.

Pulling positives this fall, Wildcat quarterbacks — Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow — have combined to throw the fewest interceptions in the SEC (2), eight less than last season. And Kentucky’s defense is one of only six in the conference that’s allowed fewer than 10 touchdown passes. These highlighted areas are normally indicative of relevant teams at this junction, but the Wildcats haven’t done enough offensively to warrant wins — although they have been more productive at moving the football and scoring touchdowns than Arkansas and Florida.

Stoops wasn’t hired to win SEC championships. That’s nothing but a pipe dream with perennial Top 25 programs like Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and now Missouri staking claim in the East. It’s doubtful four-time BCS champion Nick Saban could even compete for titles at a school that puts very little of its resources into football.

Stoops was brought in to erase Kentucky’s laughing stock moniker and remove the doormat label in the East and it appears he’s on the right track. The Wildcats only want a respectable product. Much like Dan Mullen’s situation at Mississippi State, winning big in Lexington likely has a nine-win ceiling.

The strength of the SEC, for the most part, is too overpowering.

Photo Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports



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