By RICHARD CHEEKS, Contributing Writer
Coach Mark Stoops waltzed into Lexington about seven years ago and boldly proclaimed he would take Kentucky Football to a place few if any members of the Big Blue Nation who have endured the difficulties plaguing this program since the 1960s as I have believed possible. As I noted at that time, Stoops has the football pedigree. He had enjoyed success with his defenses at Florida State prior to coming to UK, and while I certainly hoped Stoops could deliver, a big part of this fan simple nodded and moved on.
When he arrived here, all admit the pantry of player personnel was devoid of legitimate D1 championship quality talent. So, Stoops and his staff hit the recruiting trail with the primary mission of stocking the cupboard with as many legitimate D1 players as possible, as quickly as possible, and fill the remaining spots with players who could be serviceable.
In 2013, his team produced two wins, matching Joker Phillips win total in the 2012 season. In 2014 and 2015, Stoops’ teams won five games each season. In 2016 and 2017, his teams won seven games each year and ended those seasons with bowl losses. In 2018, UK posted a 9-3 regular season and got a 10th win over Penn State in a prestigious New Year’s Day bowl.
In addition, in 2018 the Stoops’ Troops played powerhouse Georgia in a game that would determine the winner the SEC East. Yes, dear friends, the team fell short against the Dawgs that day, but that game marked the fulfillment of the first part of Coach Mark Stoops commitment to compete for championships in the SEC.
Each season of Stoops’ first six at the helm of UK has seen the Cats either match or surpass the total number of wins in the season. Certainly, a 9-3 regular season and a 10-3 overall season has clearly raised the bar yet again begging the question: Can the 2019 version of Stoops’ Troops match or surpass the 10 wins they posted in 2018?
As is the case most seasons, the summertime is when we can all pose the questions for which there are no answers available. How will Terry Wilson do in his second season? Can UK sustain a legitimate passing game to create more space for the running backs to operate? Will Kentucky have a legitimate backup for the QB position should Terry Wilson go down? How will the Cats’ running game be now that Benny Snell has moved on and will be playing on Sundays? Can the UK defense fill the big holes left by graduating players that were so instrumental in 2018 on defense that kept UK in some games when the offense languished? Can the coaching staff find the right answers for the kicking game?
So many questions, and these are just a sampling of questions that are swirling around the BBN this summer as we all count the days until the team begins the August camp and eventually kicks off the season on Aug. 31. I am afraid that we will have to wait until actual play begins to learn the answers to these and other questions that will determine whether this program will take another step forward on Stoops’ mission of an SEC Championship.
Anticipating 2019, and Beyond
This will be Coach Stoops’ seventh as Kentucky’s head man. In his first six seasons, his record has been 36-39 (48 percent) with bowl trips each of the last three years. Stoops’ record through six seasons ties him with the highest winning percentage with Fran Curci’s 47-51 record in nine seasons. No UK football coach has finished his tenure at UK with a non-losing record since the UK brain trust sent Blanton Collier packing with a 41-36 record through eight seasons. If Stoops can win three more games than it loses in 2019, he will become the first UK coach since Collier to have a non-losing overall record (note: Fran Curci’s record after his first five season was 32-23-1, but in 1978 through 1981 finished 15-28-1.
This is the backdrop for the 2019 football season at Kentucky. No one can answer the big questions that will dictate how the Cats will do during the next season. The table that I link below shows projected game margins for the Cats’ 2019 opponent using three bases for establishing team strengths for the upcoming season, “LAST YEAR,” “LEAST SQUARES,” and “WEIGHTED.” The final tally is an average of these three methods. The order of the non-conference and SEC opponents is based upon their appearance in the schedule.
It appears from this analysis that the Cats should win games against all four of their non-conference opponents, and the key to the season will be the Cats’ SEC performance. This is as it should be. In the SEC, the analysis favors the Cats in three games (Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Arkansas) using all three of these projection methods. Similarly, the analysis favors the opponents in two games (Georgia and Mississippi State) using all three of these projection methods. Therefore, the analysis conclude that the remaining three SEC games (Florida, South Carolina, Missouri) should determine whether the 2019 Cats win 7, 8, 9, or 10 regular season games.
• Against Florida, the Cats are favored using the LEAST SQUARES analysis, the underdog using the WEIGHTED analysis, and based on the 2018 values, the game is a pick-em matchup. The average of the methods tips the hat to the Gators by about ½ point.
• Against South Carolina, the Cats are favored by two of the three methods (2018 and LEAST SQUARES) and the underdog based on the WEIGHTED analysis. The average of the methods tips the hat to the Cats by 2 points.
• Against Missouri, the Cats are favored by two of the three methods (2018 and LEAST SQUARES) and the underdog based on the WEIGHTED analysis. The average of the methods tips the hat to the Cats by 2 points.
As the reader will notice, I have not answered, even tried to answer the questions swirling through the BBN about the upcoming season as this summer moves toward the dog days of August. I do not have those answers, and neither does the reader. We all must wait to see how the Cats answer those questions once games begin.
The first two games give the Cats an opportunity to test drive their new offense and shore up any defensive gaps that either Toledo or Eastern Michigan can expose. If the Cats win those games by three or more touchdowns, buckle up for an exciting season long ride, but if the Cats win either of those games by 10 or fewer points, be aware that we may not like the answers to many of the lingering questions.
Then in weeks 3 through 5, this team will answer most if not all the big questions about the 2019 team and season when Florida comes to Kroger Field and the Cats get back to back road trips to Mississippi State and South Carolina. Frankly, this team could find itself with a 4-1 record when it returns to Lexington from Columbia or it could limp home nursing a 2-3 record. At that point, we will have a particularly good basis to believe this team can match or surpass the nine regular season wins it posted in 2018.
In my opinion, the 2019 Cats will finish the regular season 9-3, 5-3 in the SEC, and once again appear in a prestigious New Year’s Day bowl.