Hayes: Mark Stoops again showed why he is among the nation's elite
Attention, class. Heads up.
Let me introduce you to coaching in the SEC 101, with your host, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops.
You can have your fancy new Ferrari, with your hot, young coach and his PlayStation quarterback. You can have the big win in your pocket, and the prisoner of the moment love.
Stoops will show up with his Kentucky team that looked like roadkill 7 days earlier and rip your heart out.
“We’re an experienced football team, a tough football team,” Stoops said to the ESPN broadcast team moments after UK’s 26-16 win at Florida. “We know we have that mentality. We respect Florida, but we were ready for them.”
So simple, yet so effective.
Don’t blame Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson or Gators coach Billy Napier. No, people, don’t go there.
Praise Mark Stoops — who passed Bear Bryant with victory No. 61 and now is the winningest football coach in Kentucky history.
Celebrate a coach who has built something so unique and sustainable at a basketball school (Cal was right, he just executed it awkwardly), his first effort of the season can look like a complete train wreck.
And the follow-up can look like a thing of beauty.
Celebrate a coach whose team couldn’t protect the quarterback in last week’s ugly season-opening win over Miami (Ohio). Couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t sustain drives, and was deep into the second half with a team that had no business on the same field.
Then they rolled into Gainesville — a near touchdown underdog against a team that began the season with a top-10 win over Utah — and everything changed when coaching took over.
Make no mistake, players win games. Not just this specific moment in Gainesville, but week after week at all levels of football.
But coaching — rare, smart and fundamentally-sound coaching — takes good players and makes them an elite team. Kentucky, everyone, is bordering on elite.
Napier might end up doing big things at Florida; he clearly looks like a guy who has a plan and can recruit.
But he was completely outcoached by Stoops in an early yet critical SEC East Division game that left no doubt of hierarchy: There’s Georgia and Kentucky, and everyone else.
Everywhere you looked, Kentucky improved from Week 1. Everywhere you looked, Florida regressed from Week 1.
UK had problems protecting quarterback Will Levis last week, and while it struggled early against Florida, the Wildcats’ staff figured it out, ran more early in every series and took pressure off the line and Levis.
Meanwhile, Florida kept chucking it with Richardson, who clearly wasn’t accurate and was struggling to read UK’s zone defense and combination coverages. Kentucky was rushing 3 and 4 in pass situations, and dropping 7 and 8 — and Florida and Richardson had no answer.
Kentucky leverages the football so well, and covers the entire field so disciplined, it doesn’t give up big plays. The Wildcats take great angles, they wrap up and tackle, they’re smart in coverage.
Florida got away from running Richardson, and immediately eliminated 50 percent of its offense. And Kentucky smelled blood, dropping in coverage and forcing a young quarterback to make good decisions — and forcing average receivers to get open.
It was a coaching clinic.
I wrote in August about the dilemma Florida will face this year, and it’s one that showed up front and center against Kentucky. The Gators have no backup quarterback, and that leaves them with the decision to use Richardson in the run game and risk injury.
Or don’t use him in the run game, and take away the very thing that makes him special.
The Gators clearly chose the latter against Kentucky, and once Stoops and his staff realized Richardson wouldn’t keep on zone-read plays, the defense eliminated the Florida running game. That left the Gators throwing the ball with a talented but inexperienced quarterback, and with receivers who can’t win on the outside.
All of that against UK defensive coordinator Brad White’s wildly underrated defense that was among the nation’s best in 2021 — and will be much better this season.
Moments after the game, after he was doused with water for becoming the winningest coach in UK history — surpassing a guy named Bear — he was asked what he thought of the ugly game.
“It was beautiful,” Stoops said.
Kentucky went nearly 3 decades without beating Florida, and has now beaten the Gators 3 times in the past 5 seasons — and twice in Gainesville.
Stoops is in his 10th season at Kentucky, a master class of building something from nothing. Florida, meanwhile, is on its fourth coach since Stoops took over in Lexington — and still can’t figure him out.
Don’t blame Richardson or Napier.
Celebrate Stoops, the coach who continues to do more with less.
And might have his best team yet.