Can Mark Stoops sustain success at Kentucky? Why this offseason made that question tougher to answer
Not to take away anything from Kentucky, but virtually every Power 5 program has had their moment in the sun in the 21st century.
Rutgers won 11 games and finished No. 12 in the country in 2006. Illinois went to the Rose Bowl with Ron Zook in 2007. Shoot, even Kansas won the Orange Bowl to cap off a 12-win season that same year.
That’s not to say it’s easy to have a “how do you like me now season” for historically weak Power 5 teams, but it’s been done before. The question always becomes, well, now what? How are you going to use that season to elevate your program?
We have a decade worth of data to show us why that’s not so easy:
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And while Rutgers certainly did the best job of sustaining success, the program hasn’t had a winning season in conference play since it left the Big East in 2012.
So how does this all relate to Kentucky, you ask?
Mark Stoops just put together the Wildcats’ first season with double-digit wins since 1977. By any metric, it was Kentucky’s best season in 4 decades. There’s now a good chance that a Wildcat (Josh Allen) is drafted in the top 3, which would mark the program’s highest selection since Tim Couch went No. 1 overall in 1999. And with 8 Kentucky players off to the NFL Combine, it appears the program has a favorable chance to have 5 players selected for the first time in the modern draft era.
It’s because of those reasons — and the fact that Kentucky ranks No. 114 in percentage of returning production — that you won’t find Stoops’ team ranked in any preseason Top 25s. The expectation is that Kentucky will come back down to earth because like I said, we’ve seen this before.
Based on the offseason he had so far, the ultimate question surrounding Kentucky is murky at best.
At first, it looked like Stoops was set to accomplish a key, internal feat. That is, keep both of his top assistants on board.
It’s more important than losing a few players to transfer (3 Kentucky players entered the transfer portal this offseason) or having a superstar tailback declare early for the NFL Draft.
Take Northwestern, for example. Those Wildcats went to 6 bowl games before Pat Fitzgerald took over in 2006. They’ve been to 8 bowl games since then, including 3 seasons of double-digit wins. All of those bowl visits came with the same coordinators, both of whom have been at their respective positions since 2008. Staff continuity is always the goal at a place like Northwestern or Kentucky, especially after the season it had.
But then, as we found out, that didn’t happen.
Stoops got great news when coveted offensive coordinator Eddie Gran reportedly turned down a chance to leave for Georgia in favor of staying at Kentucky. Initially, it appeared that Kentucky defensive coordinator Matt House was staying as well, despite getting an offer from the Kansas City Chiefs. It didn’t come as a surprise when Kentucky reportedly tried to block the move when reports surfaced that House was leaving for Kansas City.
House did ultimately leave for the Chiefs, and now Stoops is without his right-hand man.
House got that job because Kentucky finished No. 6 in scoring defense this past year. It was House’s second season as defensive coordinator, and it was actually the first time in the Stoops era that the Wildcats finished with a top-60 scoring defense.
Now, it’s House, Allen and 4-year starter Mike Edwards who are gone. As a result, Kentucky ranks No. 127 out of 130 FBS schools in percentage of returning defensive production. The 2 most consistent things about 2018 Kentucky — the lights out defense and the running game — are major question marks.
That’s the daunting thought about Kentucky’s 2019 outlook. The roster depth and development will be tested more than they’ve been tested at any point in Stoops’ Kentucky tenure. It’s not like he was a bunch of top-5 recruiting classes to turn to.
I thought the 2019 class would be a good indicator for how much Kentucky has really elevated its national brand. Finishing the program’s best 3-year stretch since Bear Bryant was a major feather in Stoops’ hat.
Could Stoops have fared better with his 2019 recruiting class? Sure. Missing out on 2 of his top February targets and watching them sign with LSU wasn’t ideal, but that’s somewhat expected. Chances are, he’s not going to regularly win the battles against college football juggernauts.
To Stoops’ credit, though, his 2019 class had a lot of similarities to the 2016 class, which was largely responsible for Kentucky’s storybook season.
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Can the 2019 class have the same impact that the 2016 group did? Time well tell. There’s certainly nothing preventing that from happening.
There doesn’t appear to be this wall standing in the way of Kentucky maintaining success anymore. Maybe it was beating Florida for the first time in 32 years. Perhaps it was finishing with a winning record in conference play for the first time since that aforementioned 1977 season.
Whatever it was, there’s a window to keep this thing going. That’s why Kentucky shelled out big bucks for ads on Times Square. Even the Wildcats’ ad that ran locally during the Super Bowl recognized the window they have:
“It’s hard to get there. It’s even harder to stay there. So how are we gonna handle success? How are we gonna reach the next level?”
Stoops isn’t running from the hurdle. He’s running right at it.
And if he clears the 2019 hurdle, Kentucky’s outlook will be anything but murky moving forward.