LEXINGTON — University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was typically blunt when asked late Saturday night if his Wildcats have made progress, despite four straight losses and a 1-5 record that includes the 48-7 pounding by top-ranked Alabama earlier in the evening.
“I think we’re making progress, but I don’t think anybody cares, you know what I mean?” Stoops said. “The record is what it is.”
But, better days may well be ahead for Stoops’ team, with the schedule becoming much more reasonable the rest of the way, starting Oct. 24 at Mississippi State.
Home games with Alabama State and Missouri follow Nov. 2 and Nov. 9. Missouri looked to be a sure loss until the Tigers’ outstanding quarterback, James Franklin, went down with a shoulder separation during Saturday’s upset of Georgia.
Speaking of Georgia, the Bulldogs may be the SEC team most riddled with injuries currently, though Stoops’ own Wildcats gained some ground in that regard during the beatdown by Alabama.
UK is at Vanderbilt Nov. 16 and Georgia Nov. 23.
And then a subpar Tennessee team comes to Commonwealth Nov. 30, though the Vols are capable of beating most anybody as long as tailback Rajion Neal is healthy.
Still, none of those teams are Alabama, South Carolina and Florida — the last three teams to beat Kentucky.
Alabama State is the only sure win for Kentucky the rest of the way, but virtually all of the remaining opponents are beatable for the Wildcats if they give a South Carolina-type (35-28 USC on Oct. 5) effort.
“The first half of the season is over with,” said senior linebacker Avery Williamson of Kentucky. “I feel like these games are winnable, and we could still become
bowl eligible. We have to win five games to be bowl eligible, so we have to grind and dig and try to get some wins.”
I still believe bowl eligibility is possible for this Kentucky team, and if the Wildcats fall short of that, it will be injuries (numerous players are banged up off the Alabama game) more than a lack of skill or coaching ability that dooms UK this time around.
Speaking of bowl eligible, it was sure nice to see the Commonwealth Stadium crowd give Rich Brooks a standing ovation Saturday night during the break between the first and second quarters.
I feel like Brooks never received as much credit as he deserved when he coached the Wildcats from 2003-09. Brooks took over a UK program in ’03 that had little talent and precious few scholarships because of NCAA probation stemming from the Hal Mumme days. And he built this program to one that few teams wanted to play outside of Florida and maybe whoever Bobby Petrino was coaching at the moment.
The program that Mark Stoops has inherited is loaded for bear compared to what Brooks was greeted with when he came out of retirement to take over at UK.
But back to the future, I feel like Saturday’s meltdown vs. the Crimson Tide had more to do with the imposing machine Alabama has become under Nick Saban than any major crisis of confidence about Stoops’ Wildcats.
Saban’s current team is not playing as well as it is capable, and yet the Crimson Tide are still great. If they play even reasonably well, nobody can beat them.
It’s going to take a rare poor outing by Alabama and a perfect game by one of seven teams — Oregon, Stanford, Florida State, Texas A&M, LSU, Clemson or Ohio State — to beat the Tide.
Stoops certainly agrees that Alabama has it all going on these days, starting with talent, size, and experience.
“I looked at their roster, and there’s quite a few older guys in there,” Stoops said. “That’s what you do when you have a great program like that. They sprinkle in young talent, and they do a great job, but those are some big boys that have been around for a while.
“They are doing everything right. They’re lifting, they’re training, they’re recruiting, and they’re developing the players they have. So it’s a great model to look at.”
It’s much too soon to say Stoops and his staff can’t make some progress in achieving a similar model. Kentucky will likely never be an Alabama, but all we know for sure is that it’s not going to happen overnight.
UK’s 2014 schedule isn’t quite as daunting as it is this season. Perhaps most importantly, the tougher games — at Florida, at LSU, and Georgia — are scattered about the Wildcats’ landscape much more reasonably than this season’s front-loaded model.
So I see a six, seven win season ahead in ’14 and then in 2015 Kentucky looks at a seven or eight win kind of campaign.
I’m impressed that even after the Alabama debacle, I see a steely resolve by Stoops and his players that feels sincere.
“I like this group,” Stoops said. “We were uphill against a great team tonight. I’m a little bit frustrated. I’ll wait and get back to work tomorrow and get these guys in position to compete and fight and get better the rest of the way through.”
Just how successful Stoops and company are the rest of this season will depend on progress made at the quarterback spot, and how well the Wildcats can compensate for a poor offensive line.
Starting QB Jalen Whitlow suffered a severe ankle sprain early in the Alabama game, leaving Maxwell Smith to fill in, ailing shoulder and all.
On the offensive line only junior tackle Darrian Miller (6-foot-5, 284 pounds) is close to top-of-the-line SEC caliber at the moment. And I’m not sure even Miller is there yet, because at 284 pounds, he’s small by SEC standards.
That’s the kind of problem, maybe more than any other, that won’t be solved overnight.