Kentucky football: As Mark Stoops drama plays out, a season-in-review stock report
It has been a bizarre season for Kentucky football. It was perhaps never more bizarre than Saturday, when the Wildcats’ 38-31 win over No. 10 Louisville ended the season with a Mountain Dew-sized jolt of energy and momentum. Kentucky ended up 7-5, continuing its bowl streak and claiming victories over Florida and Louisville.
And then spent the next 10 dizzying hours wondering whether Mark Stoops was headed to Texas A&M. One report said the deal was all but done. As Saturday night turned to Sunday, however, Kentucky insider Matt Jones reported that, no, Stoops was staying at Kentucky. Then Stoops weighed in.
I know there’s been much speculation about me and my job situation the last couple of days. It’s true I was contacted about a potential opportunity this weekend, but after celebrating a big win against our rivals with players I love like family, I knew in my heart I couldn’t…
— Mark Stoops (@UKCoachStoops) November 26, 2023
So, much ado about nothing, apparently.
But losses to South Carolina and Tennessee probably were the difference between a respectable 2023 campaign and one that could have ended with a New Year’s Day bowl appearance and a top-25 ranking. In any case, predictable or boring were 2 things that Kentucky football wasn’t in 2023. Here’s our year-in-review stock report.
Most improved: Deone Walker, DL
Walker made his name as a massive D-lineman a season ago, but his production down the stretch of the 2023 season makes him a likely All-SEC pick next season. Included among Walker’s 51 stops were 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. The massive interior lineman became progressively more impossible to block as the season went, managing all but 1 of his TFLs against SEC competition.
Biggest surprise: Maxwell Hairston, DB
A year ago, Hairston got picked on in coverage by Vanderbilt for a game-winning touchdown in Lexington. What a difference a season made. Hairston had 64 tackles this year (up from 2 last season), made 5 interceptions (and made UK history with a PAIR of pick-6’s against Vandy) and broke up another 6 passes. Kentucky’s secondary struggled throughout the season with injuries and inconsistency, and it was forced to rely increasingly on inexperienced players. But Hairston was one of the highlights of the season, and he could bloom even more in 2024.
Player of the Year: Ray Davis, RB
When Kentucky added Davis from Vanderbilt in the transfer portal, it added him to a relatively full running back room. Davis was expected to be a contributor, but not necessarily a superstar. Instead, he was Kentucky’s most consistent performer all season and was basically the north star of this team. Liam Coen guided his ship not by transfer QB Devin Leary, but by Davis.
Davis rushed for 1,066 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he also managed 29 catches for 317 yards and 7 more receiving scores. His performance against Florida entered the UK record book, and his 3-TD game against Louisville definitely put some shine on this accolade.
Best win: at Louisville
Sorry to the 3rd straight win over Florida, which was the kind of dominant trench-thumping that other SEC schools used to deliver to UK. But impressive as that relatively easy win was, this wasn’t your big brother’s Florida Gators team. On the other hand, Jeff Brohm had Louisville in the top 10, still slated for the ACC title game and harboring some very tenuous CFP hopes entering the season-ending grudge match with Kentucky.
Add to that a difficult 2nd half to the season for UK, rumors about Mark Stoops being a target for Texas A&M and the ever-deepending ocean that is SEC football (well, hello there, Texas and Oklahoma). Beating Louisville demonstrated the kind of consistent effort and resiliency that have eluded UK for much of this season. A 5th win in a row over the Cards before the series is likely knee-capped after next year’s game in Lexington was pretty sweet. As was Stoops’ 2nd top-10 win at UK.
Worst loss: at South Carolina
The Tennessee loss may have been more painful, given UT’s continued dominance of the series and the fact that the disappointing Leary played his worst game of the year in that matchup. But losing to South Carolina seemed like a tangible sign that the fires in the belly of coaches and players alike that built Kentucky up from the SEC floor might have gone out. In any case, that’s consecutive losses to the Gamecocks. Shane Beamer seems to have trouble beating teams not named Kentucky, and the Wildcats can’t afford to get bypassed by the Gamecocks in that eternally tougher SEC.
Play of the Year
It’s not the flashiest play of the UK season, but it’s the one that both embodies this Wildcats team at its best … and is probably the biggest score. When UK football 2023 is brought up by Big Blue Nation, it’ll probably be to remember the way Davis played. And the win over Louisville. So this play encompassed both of those moments, making it a solid choice for the Play of the Year.
— Southeastern Conference (@SEC) November 25, 2023