After back-to-back 5-7 campaigns in 2014 and 2015, Kentucky finally broke through with a 7-5 regular-season record and went to its first bowl game under coach Mark Stoops last year.
The Wildcats ultimately getting upended by Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl is immaterial. The fact that Stoops took this program bowling for the first time since 2010 is an achievement in and of itself. “All shapes and sizes,” just like Jules said to Vincent at the end of “Pulp Fiction.”
That being said, it’s fair to question if Stoops has taken UK as far as he can. There were only two ranked opponents on the schedule in 2016, SEC titan Alabama and ACC rival Louisville. The Crimson Tide blew the ‘Cats off the gridiron 34-6. Yes, they defeated the Cardinals in a 41-38 thriller, but eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson turned it over four times in the middle of his late-season swoon.
While taking a step forward to eight or nine wins isn’t unreasonable for Stoops, neither is a step back to five or six.
2016 Projection: 6-6 (3-5)
Actual Record: 7-5* (4-4)
* doesn’t include bowl game
I covered Florida State back when Stoops was the defensive coordinator there for Jimbo Fisher, and I never got the feeling that he was a head coach in waiting.
But since he’s become the top face on the totem pole in Lexington and gotten comfortable being in charge of everything, Stoops has given off much more of a CEO vibe. Kentucky continues to recruit relatively well, especially in his native Ohio.
According to the composite rankings at 247Sports, the Wildcats have the 19th-ranked class for 2018 based on current commitments — two of their four 4-star kids are from the neighboring Buckeye State, as well. Stoops signed the No. 31 haul in February, two spots ahead of the Cards, maybe due to that victory on Thanksgiving weekend.
Still, it’s UK. ‘Cats fans will always care about basketball tenfold when compared to football. Stoops has done well, though.
An early-season back injury to Drew Barker in 2016 opened the door for Stephen Johnson, who was a 54.7-percent passer with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 13-to-6.
Overall, his numbers were pretty mediocre. Johnson got the majority of the snaps in 11 of Kentucky’s games, and in seven of them he threw for under 200 yards. In eight contests against conference foes, his TD-to-INT ratio was a negative 4-to-5.
But keep in mind that coordinator Eddie Gran didn’t require Johnson to light it up through the air and only asked him to throw it 30-plus times twice. Since Barker was the more talented passer, Gran put extra focus on the ground game and rebuilt the offense around the tailback tandem of Stanley “Boom” Williams and Benny Snell.
Despite the limitations of his right arm, Johnson did enough last year to stay atop the depth chart. Barker is still there, but he has been relegated to a backup role.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Williams may have curiously left early for the NFL Draft, but Snell was only a freshman in 2016 and is perhaps the most underrated ball carrier in the conference.
The receiving corps lost two of its top three targets from a year ago, as Jeff Badet decided to transfer to Oklahoma and Ryan Timmons is out of eligibility. But No. 1 option Garrett Johnson does return, plus tight end C.J. Conrad has flashed here and there.
Kentucky’s offense wasn’t bad this past season and averaged an even 30 points per game, although the defense can’t keep surrendering 31.3 on a weekly basis. While Stoops came to the Wildcats with a reputation as a defensive guru, they’ve finished 13th, 11th, 12th and ninth in the league in total D on his watch since 2013.
Fortunately, this should be his best unit yet. Linebackers Jordan Jones and Courtney Love in particular are tremendous players.
Week 1: at Southern Miss (W)
UK collapsed at home last year in the season opener against the Golden Eagles. Don’t expect that to happen again, even in Hattiesburg.
Week 2: vs. Eastern Kentucky (W)
The Colonels were only 3-8 last season at the FCS level, so this matchup should be over shortly after it starts at Kroger Field.
Week 3: at South Carolina (L)
A tilt between two up-and-coming programs in the East, the Gamecocks have too much skill-position talent for UK.
Week 4: vs. Florida (W)
Kentucky hasn’t beaten the Gators since 1986. That’s 30 straight losses. Now is as good a time as any to break through and end the streak.
Week 5: vs. Eastern Michigan (W)
The Eagles finished over .500 last year for the first time since 1995, so they shouldn’t be much of a problem for the Wildcats at home.
Week 6: vs. Missouri (W)
Expect points aplenty in this one. While Mizzou can dent the scoreboard liberally, Barry Odom’s defense hasn’t stopped anybody of late.
Week 7: bye
Week 8: at Mississippi State (L)
Nick Fitzgerald struggles against good defenses but simply overpowers bad ones. UK’s still qualifies as bad at this point.
Week 9: vs. Tennessee (W)
The Vols have many questions to answer after 2016’s disappointment, so the ‘Cats should be able to outscore them in Lexington.
Week 10: vs. Ole Miss (W)
With everything going on in Oxford, it’s impossible to get a handle on the Rebels right now. Kentucky is the steadier squad these days.
Week 11: at Vanderbilt (L)
The Commodores always find a way to play tough D, plus Ralph Webb can move the chains with his legs and keep possession of the ball.
Week 12: at Georgia (L)
The Bulldogs are most everyone’s pick to capture the division. They have more than enough defense to slow down Snell considerably.
Week 13: vs. Louisville (L)
Even if Jackson doesn’t win the Heisman again, he’s a nasty dual threat and will be looking for revenge after this past season’s choke job.
2017 Projection: 7-5 (4-4)
Final Standings: 4th in SEC East
The Wildcats went to five consecutive bowl games from 2006-10, which was a school record, but then they came up empty from 2011-15.
It may have taken Stoops four years to rescue this team from the Joker Phillips experiment and get UK past the month of November again, but that doesn’t make it any less of an accomplishment. The arrow is surely pointing up on campus.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see the ‘Cats taking another gigantic leap from seven wins to eight or more. That’s necessary for Stoops and Co. to be genuine contenders in the East, not just occasional thorns in the side. Sure, they’ll deliver an upset or two. But a week-to-week powerhouse? I’m not ready to go there with my forecast.
Kentucky runs the rock and defends the pass well enough to make it to another bowl game, but throwing the ball and stopping the run aren’t optional in today’s SEC.