The state of Mississippi’s rise as a football power might overshadow it among popular SEC storylines, but Mark Stoops is authoring his own feel-good tale at Kentucky.
Entering Saturday’s visit to LSU (5-2, 1-2), Stoops’ Wildcats (5-1, 2-1) are looking like this season’s Vanderbilt -- a longtime SEC East doormat that comes out of nowhere to post a surprising win total.
Kentucky was a total train wreck a couple of seasons ago and went 2-10 and failed to win a single conference game last year in Stoops’ first season as head coach. But he and his staff have signed two impressive recruiting classes and quickly built the Wildcats into a threat to beat the traditional powers in the SEC East.
If their 36-30 loss at Florida -- when a missed delay-of-game infraction enabled the Gators to score the game-tying touchdown and eventually win in overtime -- wasn’t enough proof, the Wildcats’ 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to beat South Carolina 45-38 should do the trick. They could easily be undefeated right now, which has to surprise even the most loyal Kentucky fan.
The true test of Kentucky’s legitimacy has yet to arrive, however. The Wildcats have a back-loaded schedule, so matching Vandy’s back-to-back nine-win seasons under James Franklin will be no easy feat.
Beyond Saturday’s trip to Tiger Stadium, Kentucky next must face Mississippi State, Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee and Louisville. The good news is that the toughest two opponents -- No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 10 Georgia -- must travel to Lexington, where the Wildcats have already defeated South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Perhaps the Wildcats will win one or both of those home games, but anything beyond achieving bowl eligibility will be icing on the cake considering where the program sat when Stoops took over from Joker Phillips.
The Wildcats last played in the postseason in 2010, Phillips’ first season as head coach. That was the end of a five-year run where Kentucky played in a bowl game each season, with the previous four coming under Rich Brooks. Things went south quickly from there, though, with the Wildcats going 5-7 in Phillips’ second season and 2-10 (0-8 SEC) in 2012, with athletic director Mitch Barnhart announcing during the season that Phillips would not return as head coach.
A season-and-a-half after inheriting that mess, Stoops has Kentucky in position to contend in the the East.
As with Franklin’s Vanderbilt in 2012 and 2013, it helps that the Wildcats play in a division where the traditional powers are down. Tennessee and Florida aren’t the dominant SEC forces that they once were, and South Carolina has obviously taken a step backward after winning 11 games in each of the last three seasons.
It’s certainly fair to point that out, but even so, we’re unaccustomed to seeing Kentucky take Florida to the wire or topple Steve Spurrier and South Carolina. The Wildcats haven’t started a season 5-1 since 2007, after all, and have won as many as eight games in a season just three times in the last 30 years.
Beating South Carolina was nice, but we’re about to see whether Kentucky is more than an improved team that faced a soft early schedule. They’ve already gotten their nonconference cupcakes (Tennessee-Martin and Louisiana-Monroe) and their one SEC gimme (Vandy) out of the way. Up next are some of the SEC’s big boys and, of course, the regular-season finale at rival Louisville, which has won the last three Governor’s Cup showdowns.
Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze seem like shoo-in favorites to win the SEC’s Coach of the Year awards, but Stoops would also have a legitimate case if the Wildcats keep this up in the second half.