Final SEC Rankings: Kentucky rebuilding with Mark Stoops

NCAA Football: Kentucky at South Carolina

Here’s the second team in a daily series of Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared based on on-field success, preseason expectations, coaching stability, recruiting and program momentum.

Over the next two weeks, don’t look at these rankings solely from a win-loss standpoint, but delve deeper.

Final SEC Rankings of 2013:

14. Arkansas
13. Kentucky
12. Florida 
11. Tennessee
10. Ole Miss
9. Mississippi State
8. Georgia
7. Vanderbilt
6. Texas A&M
5. LSU
4. Alabama
3. South Carolina
2. Missouri
1. Auburn

And enjoy the debate.

13. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8)

The Wildcats don’t enjoy being associated with the ‘bottom-dweller’ stigma, but the harsh reality of 16 consecutive conference losses dating back to Sept. 2012 are starting to sting in Lexington. Mark Stoops replaced Joker Phillips to stop the hemorrhaging, and while the Wildcats were competitive, a lack of confidence and ultimately talent led to a rough 10-loss campaign. When there’s nowhere to go but up for a program four years removed from its last bowl berth, the future begins now.

On-field performance: D; Lack of playmakers, little production

From Maxwell Smith to Jalen Whitlow, Kentucky’s offense lacked reliability at the quarterback position in 2013 and never sustained a running game as a secondary element to Neal Brown’s scheme. Florida had the league’s most anemic offense by scoring numbers, but the Wildcats were last in nearly every other statistical category. Kentucky produced a conference-low 212 first downs, struggled at the bottom in third-down conversion rate and gave up a league-leading 37 sacks. The Wildcats punted more times than any other team and rarely made it to the red zone.

Junior wideout Javess Blue was Kentucky’s most productive weapon when quarterbacks had enough time to look his way. Blue hauled in a team-high 43 receptions for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He proved to be a dependable option on third down near the sideline and will certainly be the Wildcats’ top returning player on offense this spring.

Expectations: B-; SEC wins needed

Stoops wanted to avoid the SEC cellar in his first season, but wasn’t that expected based on personnel and schedule? The silver lining in Kentucky’s conference losses is that only three were lopsided affairs. The Wildcats were no match for Alabama, Georgia or Missouri but played well — in spurts — at Mississippi State, South Carolina and at Commonwealth Stadium against Florida. Those segments of competitive football are glimmers of hope and reasons to be optimistic for Stoops and his staff.

RELATED: Kentucky regular season recap

Looking ahead to this season’s SEC slate, the Wildcats get South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Georgia at home and travel to Florida, LSU, Missouri and Tennessee. It’s not favorable by any stretch, but having gone through the SEC gauntlet once already, Stoops should be better prepared for what the Wildcats will see in 2014.

Coaching: C; Frustration magnified in close losses

At the season’s halfway point, the Wildcats were fighters — a team with lesser talent that overachieved in contests against seventh-ranked Louisville and East contender South Carolina.  Kentucky was a third-down stop away in Columbia, S.C., from getting the ball back down seven in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

Mike Davis’ five-yard burst on 3rd-and-3 at midfield sent Stoops and defensive coordinator DJ Eliot into a tizzy after a second effort was enough to move the chains and put the Gamecocks into the victory formation following a five-yard substation infraction penalty.

The first down was a microcosm of Kentucky’s season, a program a few plays here and there away from five or six wins. For the coaching staff, the most frustrating loss was perhaps the six-point setback at Mississippi State on October 24th. Poor clock management led to a rushed incompletion on 4th and 7 at the Bulldogs 29 with 21 seconds left that sealed Kentucky’s fifth straight loss.

Recruiting: B+; Barker adds instant offense

Stoops has given every indication that pro-style quarterback Drew Barker, one of Kentucky’s seven early enrollees in January, will have the opportunity to start as a freshman under center. Barker shined at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and should see plenty of reps during spring practice since Maxwell Smith is absent following offseason shoulder surgery.

Barker’s one of six four star players according to 247Sports that Stoops was able haul in this recruiting cycle. Denzel Ware of Crestview, Fla., has future all-SEC potential. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder has a great first step and was one of Stoops’ big fish while at Florida State. Alabama, Florida and Clemson requested his services among several others, but Ware ultimately sees an opportunity at turning around the Wildcats football program as most intriguing.

RELATED: Kentucky National Signing Day recap

Keep an eye on running back Mikel Horton, a physical 6-foot-1, 225-pound ballcarrier from Middletown, Ohio. He starred at the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl and may challenge for early playing time against the likes of top returning rusher JoJo Kemp and Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard. By most accounts, Kentucky will have its first Top 25 class in years and the Jan. 21 addition of three-star safety Kendall Randolph out of Tallahassee, Fla., provided a late boost.

After previously favoring Louisville, Randolph went with Kentucky over Oklahoma, the 2013 Sugar Bowl champion coach by Stoops’ brother, Bob.

The late addition of 6-foot-5, 370-pound local product Matt Elam, a star defensive lineman out of Lexington, gives the Wildcats arguably their best recruiting class ever. Elam picked Kentucky over Alabama saying “if you’re good you’re good” in reference to the Crimson Tide’s ability to produce future pros.

Program momentum: D+; Ascension begins now

Big Blue Nation has fought the bottom of the SEC East barrel for several years and hopes Stoops’ regime can turn this thing around with a better-than-expected incoming signing class. The Wildcats haven’t been nationally relevant on the gridiron since Andre Woodson led Kentucky to a 5-0 start and No. 8 ranking in 2007. The reliable signal caller threw 71 touchdown passes over his final two seasons and the Wildcats envision incoming talent Barker to have similar success down the road.

As Mizzou tries to build on last season’s division crown and Tennessee’s recent leap in the right direction under Butch Jones, it’s time Kentucky gets serious about winning football games in the SEC. That starts with players, and it appears the Wildcats are building a solid nucleus under Stoops.

Photo Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

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