Kentucky football: Is this the biggest game of Mark Stoops’ Wildcats career?
Two years ago on this exact weekend, I ran into an old friend in the press box at the place that was then called Commonwealth Stadium and is now Kroger Field.
“This is a big one tonight, isn’t it?” he asked. On the season, Kentucky was 1-2 and had lost quarterback Drew Barker to what ended up being a season-ending and career-breaking injury. In his fourth season at Kentucky, Mark Stoops was 13-26 overall and 4-21 in SEC play. With the season at a crossroads, Kentucky faced an offensively limited South Carolina team with a new head coach.
It felt like a loss to that South Carolina team, particularly a bad loss, could have been the beginning of the end of Mark Stoops’ career at Kentucky. In the past two seasons, Kentucky had started 5-1 and 4-1 only to watch each season slip away without a bowl game. The previous November, Stoops had been embarrassed by Vanderbilt in a game that Kentucky lost 21-17 after both giving up a touchdown to a totally uncovered receiver; and turning a first and goal at the Vandy 1 and a first and goal at the Vandy 2 into zero points.
But a funny thing happened that night two years ago. Kentucky, behind a limited offense led by JUCO quarterback Stephen Johnson and true freshman running back Benny Snell, who was playing in his second career game, rallied from a halftime deficit and won that game over South Carolina, 17-10.
Over these last two years, Stoops has gone 16-10, which includes a 9-8 mark in SEC play. The revival of Kentucky football began with a grinding, churning win over Carolina that became a prototype for what was to come. Kentucky blocked and ran well, and they defended and passed just well enough to get the job done. The (other) biggest win of that 2016 season was a 41-38 triumph at Louisville, who was led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson and favored by 27 points.
The 16-10 run over the last two years has also included wins over Tennessee and Florida and has gotten Kentucky solidly out of the SEC cellar. The Wildcats still have their limitations. That 2017 defense allowed more than 28 points and 427 yards per game. The passing game over the last two seasons has been deeply limited. When Kentucky has met elite competition, the results haven’t always been pretty. That run has included losses by 28 points (to Alabama), 38 points (to Mississippi State) and 29 points (to Georgia).
But in 2018, Kentucky has now finally ended its historic streak of futility against Florida. And now, with the No. 14 Mississippi State Bulldogs coming to town, Kentucky has the chance to take the biggest step of the Stoops Era, perhaps the biggest step in UK football since the 1970s.
Kentucky has the personnel now to do more than feast off the bottom feeders of the SEC. Maybe the Wildcats still aren’t on the same track as Alabama or Georgia, but given the general shakeup of the SEC, they could end up being the third-best team in the league and a solid Top 20 program.
Benny Snell is on pace to become Kentucky’s all-time leading rusher in his third season. Defenders like Josh Allen, Mike Edwards and Jordan Jones have NFL skill sets. Quarterback Terry Wilson may be the missing piece of the puzzle — another passer not exactly brilliant in accuracy, but courageous with the football and blessed with the nerves of a seasoned blackjack player.
Two years ago, Mark Stoops was coaching for his job and for the opportunity to see through the implementation of the program he wanted to bring to Lexington.
Saturday, Stoops is coaching to define exactly how successful these last two years have been. Kentucky is still in solid shape even if they lose … but a win would greatly speed up the climb from the bottom of the SEC to a status not seen in Lexington in the last 40 years.
Two years ago, Saturday night was about avoiding embarrassment. Saturday, it could be about making history.
Two years ago was a big game. Saturday night could be a bigger one.