With a classic bowl game victory over Virginia Tech earlier this week, Kentucky football wrapped up its second straight positive season in which the program surpassed preseason expectations.
In fact, the past two seasons have been the best two-year stretch for Wildcat football since 1976-77. So, I believe it’s time to sit back and take stock of this program.
First things first: Coach Mark Stoops should be congratulated on the job he has done in Lexington.
While I have been critical of the way Stoops manages the fourth quarters of close games, the fact remains that Kentucky football went from winning just four combined games in the 2012-2013 seasons to winning 18 contests over the last two years.
The Wildcats are much, much better off with Stoops at the helm then they were before his time. Even his toughest critics have to admit that.
But despite the recent success, it’s absolutely worth asking, where do the Wildcats go from here?
The fact remains that Kentucky has still yet to win the SEC East during Stoops’ tenure. In fact, they have yet to even finish second in the division out-right as they tied for second place in 2016 and 2018.
This year was a good one for the Wildcats, but they did finish with a losing record in SEC play (3-5) and in a tie with South Carolina for fourth place in the division. Friendly reminder: The Gamecocks finished the year with a losing record of 4-8.
I’m not trying to be a "Debbie Downer" here. It’s great that Stoops has the Wildcats out of the SEC East cellar, but that isn’t exactly the toughest challenge.
Vanderbilt doesn’t even deserve to be in the SEC, Missouri’s season was so disappointing that they just fired their head coach, and Will Muschamp’s time at South Carolina is on life support right now.
For crying out loud, Tennessee started their season off with losses to Georgia State and BYU and they still managed to finish 5-3 in conference play.
There is a certain level of nuance that people need to have when talking about Stoops’ success at Kentucky which I think is missing.
If fans aren’t careful, Stoops could turn out to be another Rich Brooks which isn’t a bad thing, but it certainly isn’t a great result.
Brooks took over a bad program and then had two good seasons in 2006 and 2007 where the Wildcats won a combined 16 games. Sound somewhat familiar?
Then Kentucky underwhelmed in 2008 and 2009 to win just 14 games combined as Brooks retired at the end of the 2009 season.
I believe that now is the time in which fans should start expecting more from Stoops. There will be no Lynn Bowden Jr. to carry the team next year nor will there be a Kash Daniel on defense to provide that level of leadership again.
Both Tennessee and Florida have made solid head coaching hires recently so don’t expect them to let the Wildcats do whatever they want in the East.
And of course, there is the major roadblock that is Georgia. In the past two seasons the Bulldogs have outscored the Wildcats by a combined score of 55-17. The reality is that Kentucky is nowhere near competing for a SEC East crown as they head into Stoops’ eight year at the helm.
A lack of talent isn’t really a problem anymore. Stoops has recruited very well considering how Kentucky is not really a football school. Right now, their recruiting class ranks No. 23 overall in the nation by 247sports.
Sure, Georgia, Florida, and even Tennessee have higher ranked classes but at least the Wildcats are now making an actual impact in recruiting on a national level. I don’t expect that letting up anytime soon either under Stoops.
This leads us to the whole point of this column: Are fans completely okay with Kentucky finishing in the middle of the pack in the SEC East with seven or eight wins every season, or do they start expecting Stoops to fix some of those bad habits near the end of close games and contend for the SEC East crown on a regular basis?
It’s a difficult conundrum because this is Kentucky football we are talking about here.
It’s not exactly a program where 10 or 11 wins a season is expected, but I believe Stoops has done enough to get the Wildcats past the blatantly average expectations of just being good enough to be bowl eligible. Recruits seem to think so as well.
It’s time for this program to not fall behind and take that next step because Tennessee and Florida are vastly improving under Jeremy Pruitt and Dan Mullen.
Stoops has done what was asked and met the initial expectations of fans. However, complacency is the forerunner of mediocrity and the enemy of success.
The Wildcats will be on the doorstep of either taking a huge step forward or backwards starting next season. It’s up to Stoops to continue to push the program forward.
Reecer is the sports editor of the Daily Times. Reach him at 270-678-5171, or by email at email@example.com.