For longtime Kentucky fans, the turnaround engineered this season is familiar. The Georgia result aside, it brings back memories of a decade ago.

While an eight-win season seems to be a tall order with what’s remaining this season, there are more than a few similarities to the 2006 turnaround season piloted by Rich Brooks.

The first, of course, is it was Brooks’ fourth season in Lexington, and he had seasons of 4-8, 2-9 and 3-8 entering 2006. Mark Stoops, by comparison, was 2-10, 5-7 and 5-7 in his first three years.

The 2006 team led by Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton, Wesley Woodyard and Jacob Tamme finished 8-5 and beat Clemson in the Music City Bowl. But it was a four-game winning streak midway through the season that fueled the turnaround. The Wildcats beat Mississippi State, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe. That gave them four SEC wins, which is strikingly similar to the recent three-game winning streak that gave this year’s team four SEC wins.

Brooks explained how it did it in a luncheon to promote the Governor’s Cup.

“Those guys at that right time were great leaders as well as could make plays,” Brooks told the Herald-Leader. “Kentucky right now under coach Stoops has a lot of good people in place that they need to have to win, but the critical thing is in the clutch time they don’t have anybody stepping up and making plays.”

Since the SEC split into divisions in 1992, this Kentucky team is the first in program history to win three games against East opponents in the same season. A win against Tennessee on Saturday would be Kentucky’s fifth SEC win, the first time it’s posted a winning SEC record since 1977.

It seems a long time since the hand-wringing by fans about how the university would pay for Stoops’ $12 million buyout.

The similarities in key players stepping up has arrived in the form of receiver Jeff Badet, who is averaging 24 yards per catch, and Benny Snell, Jr., who happens to be tied for the SEC lead in rushing TDs at 10. Denzil Ware with 4.5 sacks and Josh Allen with a team-high 5.5 sacks already have more than anyone on the team had last year for the season. Josh Forest led the team with 3.5 sacks last year, and the team overall had 17. The Wildcats already have 15 this season.
Perhaps most impressive is the steady play of junior college quarterback transfer Stephen Johnson. He is not putting up the same kind of numbers Woodson did in his junior season, but he’s delivering wins at an unprecedented rate. Johnson won three SEC games by his fourth start, which was faster than Jared Lorenzen, Tim Couch or Woodson.
Safe to say Stoops has found the kind of playmakers Brooks referred to in the summer.

“I think part of this turnaround has been going on for a long time,” Stoops said on the SEC teleconference before the Georgia game. “Our players have worked extremely hard, our coaches have for many years to keep on building and doing the right things and developing our players to put them in position to win. It is very gratifying to see us play better football.”