The University if o Kentucky football team has finished its 2017 regular season with a record of 7-5, 4-4 in the Southeastern Conference. From where the program was just a few seasons ago, a 2-win campaign, the record has improved. But after a 44-17 loss to rival Louisville on Saturday, there are questions that head coach Mark Stoops has to answer, not just for the Cats’ bowl game, but for the program moving forward.
Football programs, like life, are rarely black and white. You can see the improvement in the win column under Coach Stoops and still question the program’s direction. The 2017 schedule was setup for success for the Cats: no Alabama or LSU from the SEC West; Florida, Tennessee and Louisville all at home. And even though the Cats were picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC East, most of the Big Blue Nation felt a second consecutive bowl berth was a near certainty. The Cats finished third in the East behind Georgia and South Carolina, actually defeating the Gamecocks in Columbia. Kentucky won 4 SEC games, a rarity in Lexington. There were some positives this season.
To quote Andre Agassi from the 1990s: “Image is everything.”
If you told the BBN that the Wildcats would be playing Louisville in the last game of the season for a shot at 8 wins, most would have been ecstatic. With Kentucky not having achieved that goal since 1984, that would have felt like a huge step in the right direction. And while 7-5 is not 2-10, it’s clear that not every 7-win season is comparable. For the third time under Stoops, the Cats got out to a 5-1 start. And for the third time a season of promise barely made it to the finish line intact. Yes, the Cats are bowling again, but the question has to be asked: “What could have been?”
I was one of the folks that tried to be optimistic with Kentucky at 5-1. The team wasn’t flashy, but it was winning games that everyone in Blue had seen them lose. Obviously, the loss to Florida was heart-breaking. The Cats had the game won and couldn’t close. And allowing 2 touchdowns with Gator receivers totally uncovered only poured salt into the wounds. Against Ole Miss, once again, the Cats played down to the wire and lost, the defense unable to hold onto a lead and keep the Rebels out of the end zone. For many, Stoops and his Cats played too many close games that shouldn’t have been close. Even wins against Eastern Michigan and Tennessee had the opponents throwing into the endzone on the final play with a chance to win.
Ignoring the blowout losses to Mississippi State and Georgia, heading into the Battle for the Governor’s Cup at 7-4 was still a successful season. Louisville had not defeated a team with a winning record all year. Even the reigning Heisman trophy winner, Lamar Jackson, wasn’t enough to keep the Cardinals from losing against dreadful opponents. With the line for the game at 10 points, I felt that even if the Cats don’t win, with the game at Kroger Field, the game should be competitive. And it wasn’t. The last few matchups between the Cats and the Cards have been relatively close. On Saturday, however, it was clear that the gap between the two programs was still wide and that last year’s win for the Cats was a fluke.
Losing a game is one thing, but you have to look at how the Cats lost. The offense outside of Benny Snell, Jr. was pretty vanilla with no real playmakers on the outside. The defense didn’t force the Cards to punt all day. Louisville scored on every possession. Last year, Kentucky forced Lamar Jackson to be Superman and this year the Wildcats were done in by Clark Kent. Jackson made plays of course, but he didn’t have to singlehandedly do anything because the defense was just that porous. When you throw in Jordan Jones and his fighting and unsportsmanlike penalties and some of the antics of other players, Saturday was not a good look for Kentucky.
So what’s next for the football program? Should UK Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart clean house? I don’t think that such a drastic move is necessary, but it’s clear to everyone that something has to change. Coach Stoops has improved the program, but he has to show the Big Blue Nation that he’s the man to take the Cats to the next level. In Year 5, it’s completely unacceptable for Kentucky to get blown out by an average Louisville team. You can’t lose to the worst Florida team in recent memory by shooting yourself in the foot. You can’t allow the worst Tennessee team in recent memory a chance to win the game at the end (allowing the Vols to convert a 4th and 20-plus on that final drive is inexcusable). The breakdowns that we’ve seen from this team and from this staff simply cannot happen.
The 24 hours around the Louisville game have been dreadful for Kentucky football. There have been whispers around the program but when senior offensive lineman Nick Haynes went to Twitter to voice his concern, the whispers get magnified. The defense, Stoops’ calling card, was dreadful for most of the year and provided no real resistance to the Cardinals. And with the on the field shenanigans of Jones and other Cats, it’s clear that discipline needs to be either introduced or reinforced. In short: the game against Louisville was an embarrassment.
All is not lost. Kentucky will have a bowl game that will provide extra practice time. There will be an off-season to make changes to staffing and personnel. I’m no football expert, so I won’t pretend to know what specifically should be done. What I do know, however, is that doing nothing and maintaining the status quo aren’t going to cut it. Yes there has been progress, but the players, the university and fans deserve more.