Kentucky's next challenge under Mark Stoops: Beating the Big 3
OK, Mark Stoops. Nine years in, you have made Kentucky football something it has all too rarely been: respectable. Solid. Dependable. Not exactly fancy, but entirely functional.
One of the themes Stoops returned to Tuesday was his work at Kentucky in redefining the culture. He stated that the foundation of his program was “build, select, and develop” before joking that he and his staff “hit our players over the head with a sledgehammer about a positive culture.”
There’s been plenty to be positive about.
Bowl games in each of the past 5 seasons, bowl victories in each of the past 3. Kentucky turned the tide in the rivalry with Louisville, and more the held its own against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Missouri (and probably had a not-small role in running off the last head coaches at each within the past 2 seasons). It’s time for a page in the Kentucky play book that’s either yellowed with age or maybe not even there. What’s next?
Essentially, the only way for Kentucky to continue the arduous upward climb of the SEC is against the SEC East’s Big 3. In order of plausibility, that’s Tennessee, Florida, Georgia. In 29 years of the modern alignment of the SEC, that trio has represented the East in 26 of the 29 SEC Championship Games. They’ve won 12 of those SEC title games. Four times in those 29 years, one of the Big 3 won the national championship. Kentucky, on the other hand, is 1 of 4 SEC schools that hasn’t been in an SEC Championship Game, to say nothing of a national title. Given Stoops’ success in dethroning mid-sized kings (won 6 of past 7 vs. Carolina, 5 of past 6 vs. Mizzou, past 5 against Vandy, 3 of past 4 vs. Louisville), it’s time to graduate to slaying giants.
Tennessee might not even be a giant anymore. Over the past 5 seasons, Kentucky has won 37 games and UT has won 29. The Vols’ last SEC title game appearance was in 2007, and since then, they’re on their 6th head coach. But while much of the rest of the conference teed off on UT, Kentucky struggled. The end of UK’s 26-year losing streak to UT came in 2011, but even with Kentucky’s 2020 win in Knoxville (their first since 1984), Stoops has gone 2-6 against the Vols.
Kentucky’s last back-to-back wins over UT came in 1976 and 1977, another of the more successful intervals of UK football. Meanwhile, of the series’s past 10 meetings in Lexington (where they will meet Nov. 6), 6 were decided by a single score. Last time in Lexington, UT held off Lynn Bowden on a goal-line stand late to preserve a 17-13 victory. Beating the Big 3 starts with dropping a few more finishing blows on the Vols, who are decimated by their coaching carousel and some massive losses in the NCAA transfer portal.
Florida certainly presents a more significant challenge. Kentucky’s 2018 win in The Swamp not only broke a 31 year losing streak to the Gators, but it provided the forward momentum for UK’s 10-win, Citrus Bowl season. After a series of agonizing near-misses, Kentucky finally proved that it could beat Florida. Now, the Wildcats need to prove that it wasn’t a one-year fluke.
The 2019 game in Lexington (which is again where these teams meet, this time on Oct. 2) presented Kentucky with an excellent chance to win. But kicker Chance Poore shanked a 35-yard field goal in the final minute, and Florida stole another victory in Lexington. Kentucky hasn’t beaten UF at home since 1986, and with Dan Mullen piling up offensive playmakers like firewood, there’s no time like the present to take care of another streak.
That leaves only Georgia — perennial top-10 Georgia, eternal tops of the recruiting rankings Georgia. Kentucky hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs since 2009. Unlike Florida or Tennessee, Georgia has never had a stretch of SEC play when it actually struggled with Kentucky. All-time, UGA is 60-12-2 against the Wildcats. Kentucky has never beaten Georgia in consecutive years.
There is some positive history. From 2016 to 2018, Kentucky won a pair of games each season as a road underdog. That might not sound like much, but considering that Kentucky only played 5 road games a year and was actually favored in 3 road games over that span, it seems telling. Stoops’ best teams have routinely gone into hosting road environments and pulled off surprises. Now, granted, 2019 and 2020 only featured 1 such game — last year’s 34-7 rout of Tennessee. But those seasons were 2 years of one-arm-tied-behind-the-back football.
Kentucky’s room for improvement is not exactly a well-kept secret. The Wildcats were 14th in the SEC in passing in 2019 (114 yards per game) and 2020 (121 yards per game). That’s why former coordinator Eddie Gran is gone and NFL whiz Liam Coen is the new play-caller in Lexington.
Kentucky has understandably shown commitment and pride in a punishing rushing attack over the past few seasons. Kentucky has averaged at least 197 yards rushing in 4 of the past 5 seasons. But the passing? In 2020, Kentucky passed for 260 yards against the Big 3. That’s total, not on average.
But, of course, things have changed in coaching personnel.
“I really like the changes that I made in the coaching staff,” Stoops noted Tuesday, before specifically discussing Coen and his impact. “I needed to,” he admitted.
The big on-field story of Kentucky’s 2021 season will be that battle to commit to a downfield passing game, establish some actual threat of vertical offense to keep SEC safeties from creeping up, up, up into the box. Can Kentucky throw more and more efficiently without losing its identity as the Wisconsin of the SEC?
If so, it’ll go a long way to continuing the era of good feelings in Lexington. Positivity, program building, optimism — it’s not exactly the soundtrack that normally surrounds UK football. But if the building continues, the next step is pretty evident.
That next hurdle is the East’s Big 3.