Wouldn’t it be something if Mark Stoops’ first head coaching job were his last? If he accomplished what he’s set out to do; namely, convert Kentucky into a Southeastern Conference champion? If he made the UK job a great one by winning so much, there would be no reason to leave?
If Stoops does become successful at UK and pile up an impressive win-loss record, he’ll do it in spite of what figures to be a worksheet below .500 in this, his first season. There are too many brutal games on the schedule, and not enough quality players on his roster to do much about it.
But this year’s team just might lay the groundwork for something great. And if there is success in the future, his players will look back on ’13 as the year it started. Here is how one typist believes the season will play out:
UK vs. WESTERN KENTUCKY
Through the years, the Cats have faced two different Bobby Petrinos: The U of L coach, who scorched them four times when UK was struggling with NCAA woes and the Cardinals had a roster full of talent; and the Arkansas coach, who brought his first Razorback squad into Lexington, with far less talent, and blew an early lead and the game. Petrino will succeed in Bowling Green, but not on this night in Nashville. UK, 31-20.
The school from Oxford, Ohio, is known as “The Cradle of Coaches” for producing the likes of Earl Blaik (Army), Ara Parseghian, John Pont, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, Bill Mallory, Sean Payton (Super Bowl champion-Saints), Jim Tressel and Randy Walker (Northwestern). None of them will be treading the sidelines on Sept. 7, nor will the Redhawks have the talent to upset Stoops and his Troops in their home opener. UK, 45-14.
Last year’s game is a bad memory for the Big Blue Nation, of course, because it was a loss. But hidden behind that final score was the fact that the Wildcats moved the football on the Cardinals. They just couldn’t stop U of L from doing the same. Of course, Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t near the quarterback then that he’s since become, which is why this year’s game will be a sour memory as well. U of L, 31-21.
If there’s a chance for an upset (and an opportunity to end an ugly losing streak), this is it. You couldn’t blame Gators’ head coach Will Muschamp for thinking about scouring the intramural leagues, or holding open tryouts for tailbacks. Not long after his stated goal of winning with the run game and defense, he began to lose his top rushers. If UK can shut down Florida’s ground game, Gators’ QB Jeff Driskel will have to beat the Wildcats with his arm – something he just might not be able to do. But it’s a big “if.” Florida, 27-24.
Kentucky has gone to Columbia with better teams, against inferior USC squads, and still lost. It has dropped games in the Palmetto State when the best team on the field was the Wildcats. And none of those Gamecock teams had Jadeveon Clowney, who would be the odds-on favorite for the Heisman Trophy, if it truly were the prize for college football’s top player, and not all about marketing and stats. UK finally snapped its string of losses to the ‘Ol Ball Coach four years ago, but Steve Spurrier will have the upper hand here. South Carolina, 38-21.
One of the great nights in the history of Commonwealth Stadium, perhaps second only to UK’s upset of #1 LSU, was the win over Alabama in 1997. Sure, it was a mediocre Crimson Tide club. But it was BAMA. A victory over Nick Saban and Co. (a near-impossible feat, it says here) would eclipse both of those wins put together, given the circumstances. Alabama, 38-17.
This game, for whatever reason, became a barometer somewhere along the line, at least for the Wildcats. Beat MSU and you’ve got yourself a season going. Lose to the Bulldogs, and your year likely won’t have a happy ending. The ‘Dogs started last season 7-0 (including a 27-14 win over the Cats) and got everybody excited in Starkville. But then the bubble burst and State dropped five of its last six, including an Egg Bowl blowout loss to arch-rival Ole Miss. MSU has a tougher schedule this season, meaning it will have Kentucky squarely in its sites when the Wildcats arrive. An upset is possible, but the Dogs have a senior QB in Tyler Russell, who will play behind what’s being called the best O-line in the tenure of head coach Dan Mullen – a guy who has yet to lose to Kentucky. Mississippi State, 31-24.
Fans always grumble when games like this pop up on the schedule. Coaches smile – at least, the coaches of the teams that write the fat paychecks to bring in opponents such as this. Disasters can happen; Northeast Louisiana came to town and stunned the Wildcats in 1994. No such luck for the Hornets. The Cats will get well and do some stinging of their own. Kentucky, 48-20.
The Tigers were a respectable team in the Big 12; their move to the Southeastern Conference coincided with enough personnel losses and injuries to put a solid coach, Gary Pinkel, on a seat that, if it’s not hot, is plenty warm and could be mighty toasty by the time Mizzou arrives in Lexington. He’ll leave town in even deeper trouble after the Wildcats hand Stoops another unforgettable moment – his first SEC victory. Kentucky, 35-28.
Each year, Kentucky fans circle the Vandy game as a win. Vandy fans do the same, figuring, there’s no way they can lose to Kentucky. And yet, this series is separated by one victory. One. Uno. UK leads it, 41-40-4, although it’s been lopsided for the past two years (40-0 Commodores in 2012, 38-8 ‘Dores in 2011). Prior to that, UK had won six of seven, and nine of 12. But Vandy head coach James Franklin has the Commodores playing on a different plane. Last year, en route to nine wins, they averaged 30 points a game, surrendering just 18 per contest. They have a new QB (Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels) and one of the best corps of receivers in the SEC. The defensive front will be young but the D-backfield is solid, with three vets returning to a group that was one of the nation’s best last year. Vandy, 35-27.
With a wicked-tough early schedule, including Clemson and South Carolina in its first two games, Georgia could face UK either as a national title contender, or a washed-up wannabe. Aaron Murray could be the league’s best quarterback; he led the Bulldogs to an SEC East title last year and helped take them to within five yards of an upset of eventual national champion Alabama in the league title game. One-two rushing punch Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are back (a combined 2,144 yards and 25 TDs AS TRUE FRESHMEN). The Dawgs did lose nine starters from defense, including seven to the NFL, but Mark Richt (another ex-Florida State coordinator, whose first head coaching job came in the SEC) is a master recruiter and has dipped into the JUCO ranks for defensive line help. It’ll be a rough day in Athens. Georgia, 42-21.
The Volunteers have suffered through the worst five-year stretch in program history, stumbling to 34 losses in 62 games, including an incredible setback in Lexington in 2011, when a converted wide receiver led the Wildcats to victory. Butch Jones intends to turn things around. By all accounts, he has injected the same kind of life into the Vols’ program that Stoops pumped into the Wildcats’, including success on the recruiting trail. But as far as talent is concerned, they’re not your father’s Tennessee team. Or even your older brother’s. The Vols do have what is likely the best offensive line in the SEC. But they lack a big-play threat at running back and have little experience at receiver. Defensively, UT will switch from the (ugh) 3-4 back to the 4-3, so it should reap some immediate rewards there. Jones effected a similar transformation when he took over at Cincinnati and his Bearcats flourished. Still, it says here, the Wildcats will put it together on this November day; senior kicker Joe Mansour will have the game on his foot in the closing seconds, and he’ll succeed in handing Mark Stoops a victory in his first showdown with Tennessee. UK, 30-27.
That final prediction is what happens when the desire for a great story overcomes logic. But if the Wildcats stay healthy, and grow into their new schemes, they could put together a surprise or two. And a record of 5-7 would be a great start for Stoops.
Could this be a career job? Not likely. But then again, who could have predicted a crowd of more than 50,000 for the Blue-White game and a 2014 recruiting class challenging to become one of the best in the nation?
Every great job has one thing in common: At first, nobody wanted it, because success seemed impossible. And then something changed.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)