LEXINGTON — The Kentucky Wildcats are only four games removed from being, arguably, one of the dozen or so worst college football teams in Division I.
Let’s put that another way: UK is four games into the Mark Stoops’ era or, to put it yet another way, four games removed from a time when Joker Phillips was the head coach.
So I’m hoping that any angst in the fan base off hard-fought, but losing performances the past two games to Louisville (27-13) and Florida (24-7) is relatively a solo cry and not a chorus.
I’m hoping that sentiments like the 11:52 p.m. call into Lexington radio station WVLK (AM 590) Saturday night, from a misguided gentleman suggesting UK won’t win until it gets a “real coach,” doesn’t reflect but the tiniest fraction of the Wildcats’ fan base.
That’s not to say emphatically that Stoops and his staff are the answer, though I believe they are. I’m just saying it’s impossible to know, isn’t it? Why? Go back to the top, please — four games.
The Wildcats have had one dud showing, that was unfortunately the opener — the first impression if you will — against Western Kentucky.
Since then they whipped a bad Miami of Ohio team and then lost games to a legitimate top 10 teams in Louisville and another, Florida, that’s probably top 10 worthy now that the Gators have their quarterback situation worked out.
I would claim that under the previous coaching staff, Kentucky would have lost to both Louisville and Florida more like 47-7.
Instead the Kentucky players fought like, well, Wildcats in both games, even though both opponents were superior in size and experience.
Ironically, one of the most frustrating aspects of both outings is that Kentucky had plenty of opportunities to at least challenge for an upset.
I came into this season simply hoping that progress would be made on a talent level, and, even more important to me, on an effort level. I hoped Kentucky would be at least competitive against the better teams on the schedule.
So far, they have.
Through four games. I’m going to keep referring to the number four because obviously a lot of fans are struggling to grasp that figure.
It falls under the banner of perspective.
“The hardest thing to see is improvement through failure,” said UK sophomore offensive guard Zach West Saturday night after the Florida game. “That’s what we feel like. We’re improving every week, even though the scoreboard may not show it, but we feel like we’re definitely improving every week.”
“We’re getting better, for sure,” said UK sophomore quarterback Jalen Whitlow. “I think it’s night and day compared to a couple weeks ago. We’re going to keep chipping away at it.”
“There’s fight in us,” Stoops said. “We’re going to continue to fight. That’s the way it is.”
The only qualms I have with Stoops and his staff are the juggling act at quarterback and the usage of Kentucky’s stable of talented running backs.
I don’t believe Smith is throwing the football any better than Whitlow, and so I’d like to see the coaches settle on Whitlow as the No. 1 guy since he’s the superior runner.
And at running back, it appears to me that the lone standout, the guy who can run against Southeastern Conferences defenses, is freshman Jojo Kemp.
Kemp has been used sparingly.
But the aspect of this we all forget, myself included, is that we’re not at practice every day. Stoops and the other coaches, most notably offensive coordinator Neal Brown, are.
Brown’s sterling track record is that he knows what he’s doing.
And, I don’t. Phew, the truth hurts.
I do know that after the Louisville game, Brown said that the Kemp you see on Saturdays is not the Kemp he sees in practice.
And while it’s tempting to fall into Allen Iverson mode and question the merits of P-R-A-C-T-I-C-E (we’re talking about practice?!!!!), it matters. And we — fans and media — don’t get to see it.
I know there are athletes who are gamers, and not practice types, but if you give them too much power, you ride a slippery slope as a coach. Because other players — guys who need to practice perfect in order to play perfect — might sense a double standard about the expectations of the coaches. And then the coaches lose the team.
I don’t mean this to come down too hard on Kemp. He seems like a nice kid, and he’s saying all the right things. He seems to get it. I’m not saying he’s lazy. It’s possible he just instinctively ups his motor a notch on game day, and as he matures, he’ll be able to translate that to the practice field as well.
And I should remind all of us that Kemp, like so many of the current budding stars on this Kentucky team, is a freshman.
I’m just suggesting we shouldn’t be too harsh and make snap judgments about personnel ... the kind you might make after four games (count ’em) when we don’t see the total picture like the coaches do.
Meaning, largely, that we don’t see practice.
All this said, I am worried about these next two games for the Wildcats: Saturday at South Carolina (7:30 p.m.) and then Oct. 12 home to No. 1 Alabama.
I worry that in at least one of these next two the youth of the Wildcats will bite them and their determination might take a hit as they try to survive four consecutive games against opponents that all are potential national champions.
It’s like if you get hit frequently enough by George Foreman in his prime, at some point it’s down goes Frazier.
The Wildcats have survived against Louisville and Florida with some football equivalent of rope-a-dope, but there’s two more George Foremans on the UK slate before we might see a significant step forward in the results.