By LARRY VAUGHT
After failing to get to a bowl the last two years despite having great chances to do so each year, coach Mark Stoops knows many fans are disgruntled and need to see improvements on the field to believe again in the program like they did when he first got to UK.
He said the maturity of quarterback Drew Barker, who started games at the end of last season, is one reason to be optimistic.
“I’ve seen a big change in Drew and I want to continue to see that. This is one semester. He needs to have a great summer; he needs to be a great leader in organizing all voluntary workouts and throwing with receivers and running backs and tight ends,” said Stoops. “But I have seen a change. I’ve seen a maturity in him. I’ve seen him much more composed on and off the field. I see a guy who’s very hungry to learn and just settle in and continue to grow.”
But will that be enough to get Kentucky to a bowl game and make fans believe in Stoops again? That’s what I asked four media members who cover Kentucky football regularly.
“I absolutely believe in Mark Stoops. He’s banged his head against a wall trying to build the program back to respectability,” Kentucky Sports Radio football columnist Freddie Maggard, a former UK quarterback, said. “I admire his work ethic and dedication.
“In 2013, UK was talent depleted. Morale was low coming off an abysmal 2012 season. He’s recruited and sold the program based on blueprints. Now, facilities are concrete structures. By facilities standpoint alone, Mark Stoops has overwhelmingly achieved. Reconstructing a football program in the SEC takes time, he’s on track. As for a bowl game, it’s certainly possible. Schedule is challenging. I can see six wins, yes.”
So does Tom Leach, play-by-play announcer for the UK Network and host of the Leach Report.
“I like Kentucky’s chances of playing in a bowl game because I look for significant improvement on the offensive side and that will take some pressure off a defense that lost some key players,” Leach said. “I understand fans’ frustration about not getting that sixth win the past two seasons but the talent level keeps getting better here. I think fans know that better and more talent is always the path to improvement in any program, so that belief is still there.”
Kentucky Forward columnist Keith Taylor said most of the 10 wins the last two years have not been against SEC opponents, a point of frustration for fans.
“Although the program is making progress, another step is needed for the program to keep climbing the proverbial ladder, especially when it comes to beating SEC teams of the same caliber. I think the fans still believe in Mark Stoops, but anything short of a bowl game would be considered a disappointment to Big Blue Nation,” Taylor said. “I think UK has a shot of becoming bowl eligible if the team can get fully on board and not look back, especially on the offensive side of the ball. A break-even record would be considered a success considering next year’s schedule.”
Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story has a simple way to bre
ak down Kentucky’s chances of success that makes perfect sense to me.
“I think Kentucky’s season may well come down to how many the Cats win from home games against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Win all three, UK should be able to get bowl eligible,” Story said. “Don’t win all three, then you are either going to have to beat Georgia in Commonwealth or upset an SEC team (Missouri might be ‘do-able’) or Louisville on the road to get bowl-eligible.
“Because of his contract buyout, I don’t think this is a make-or-break year for Mark Stoops. But it would obviously be helpful in terms of keeping the fan base on board to get past the 5-7 level and make a bowl game.”