Mark Story: What needs to happen for Mark Stoops' second season to be judged a success

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 5, 2014 

  • 2014 Kentucky schedule

    (Home games in capital letters)

    Aug. 30 UT MARTIN Noon

    Sept. 6 OHIO TBA

    Sept. 13 at Florida 7:30 p.m.

    Sept. 27 VANDERBILT TBA

    Oct. 4 SO. CAROLINA TBA

    Oct. 11 UL MONROE TBA

    Oct. 18 at LSU TBA

    Oct. 25 MISS. STATE TBA

    Nov. 1 at Missouri TBA

    Nov. 8 GEORGIA TBA

    Nov. 15 At Tennessee TBA

    Nov. 29 At Louisville TBA

At Mark Stoops' first Media Day as University of Kentucky head football coach last August, I asked him what would constitute success in 2013.

"Just improvement," Stoops said, "drastic improvement."

That did not happen.

Joker Phillips' final UK team in 2012 went 2-10, 0-8 in the SEC.

Stoops' first UK team in 2013 went 2-10, 0-8 in the SEC.

The 2012 Wildcats scored 17.9 points a game, while giving up 31.0.

The 2013 Wildcats scored 20.5 points a game, while giving up 31.2.

UK in 2012 gained 315 yards a game, while giving up 391.

UK in 2013 gained 341.3 yards a game, while giving up 427.2

Given the condition of the UK program they inherited, Stoops and his staff got — and deserved — a free pass on 2013.

That should not be the case, though, in 2014.

With the kickoff of Kentucky's season only 55 days away, what has to happen this fall for Stoops' second season to be judged a success?

1.) Look like an Air Raid. Perhaps the most critical decision of the Stoops era will be whom the coaches pick — redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips, true freshman Drew Barker — to start at quarterback for Kentucky in 2014.

After it became apparent last year that a series of shoulder injuries had robbed Maxwell Smith of his arm strength, UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown wound up in an unhappy place: Trying to install a pass-heavy attack without a quarterback capable of running it.

To make an Air Raid go, you have to have a quarterback who can consistently make quick, accurate passes that hit receivers in stride. If the coming season ends and there is still uncertainty about whether Kentucky has that quarterback on campus, the year has not been a success.

2.) Back up the recruiting hype. Since Stoops was hired, Rivals.com has ranked UK's two full recruiting classes 29th (2013) and 17th (2014) in the country. It is unfair to expect true freshmen and redshirt freshmen to be the nucleus of a team that makes a dramatic turnaround in the SEC.

By the end of the coming season, however, it needs to be apparent that the young players Stoops and Co. have wooed are talented enough to eventually become the core of a team that can win SEC games.

3.) Get to four wins. Let's be clear: Going 4-8 is not "success." However, if Kentucky does NOT get to at least four wins in 2014, it will be alarming.

Three of UK's four non-conference games are in Commonwealth Stadium against foes from the Ohio Valley Conference (Tennessee-Martin), Mid-American Conference (Ohio) and the Sun Belt (University of Louisiana at Monroe).

Don't sleep on that trio. UT-Martin won seven games last season and is quarterbacked by Dylan Favre (Brett's nephew). Ohio has had five straight winning seasons. ULM went 6-6 last year, won at Wake Forest and has 15 starters back.

Still, a football program with SEC resources should win those games. Assuming Kentucky does, then the most important game of the UK season will be Sept. 27 when Vanderbilt visits.

Over the last three seasons, Vandy has drubbed Kentucky by an embarrassing 100-14. This year, James Franklin has taken his miracle-working act to Penn State. Vanderbilt has only 10 starters back. The Commodores lost difference-making wide receiver Jordan Matthews to the NFL.

Simply put, if UK is improving, Vanderbilt should be a team the Cats can beat in 2014.

If Kentucky does so, it gives itself at least a chance to have a better-than-expected season.

In the big picture, 2015 is the year when UK football should be expected to return to the postseason. The '15 Wildcats will feature three Stoops recruiting classes. They will play eight home games, and do so in a renovated Commonwealth Stadium.

As for the coming season, if Kentucky could scrap its way to six wins, it could turbo-charge the Wildcats' recruiting efforts by allowing Stoops and his very aggressive staff to sell something more tangible than hope.

Still, assuming Kentucky gets to at least four victories, the key thing to look for with Wildcats football in 2014 is the thing we didn't see on the field in 2013 — drastic improvement.

If that happens this fall, then the season will have been a success.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230.Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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