Lexington, Ky.–If any doubters remain about Kentucky’s commitment to college football, direct them to Commonwealth Stadium.
There you will see a construction site going full speed on a $120 million renovation to the stadium that should be completed in time for the 2015 season. Then the school will begin construction on a state-of-the art office/training complex that will house all of the Kentucky football operations under one well-appointed roof. At a cost of $45 million, that project should be completed in time for the 2016 season.
“There can be no doubt that our administration is committed to being successful in football,” said head coach Mark Stoops, set to begin his third season in Lexington. “When we’ve finished these two projects our facilities will be as good as any in the country.”
“People here are excited about what we can accomplish,” said junior quarterback Patrick Towles, a native of Ft. Thomas, Kentucky. “There is no reason we can’t win here. We have everything we need to be successful.”
Everything, it would seem, but history. Kentucky has certainly had its high moments since its first football season in 1881 but winning consistently has been elusive. It went 11-1 with an SEC championship in 1950 under Paul “Bear” Bryant. Its 1977 team was loaded with pros but its record (11-1) and SEC championship (6-0) were vacated due to NCAA sanctions.
Its best conference record since then has been 4-4 (three times). In 2007 Kentucky, coached by Rich Brooks, knocked off No. 1 LSU 43-37 in 3 OT. That LSU team went on to win the SEC championship and the BCS national championship.
“We have won at Kentucky in the past and it’s our job to make Kentucky into a consistent winner,” said Stoops. “Last year we were close.”
Close. It is a familiar feeling for Kentucky football fans for more often than not over the past 100 years, the Wildcats have been just good enough to break their collective hearts.
Let’s look at last season. Kentucky fans got a little giddy when the Wildcats started 5-1, with the lone loss being at Florida in triple overtime. The five wins included a dramatic 45-38 comeback victory over South Carolina in Lexington. It marked the first time that Kentucky had won two straight conference games since 2009.
At that point Kentucky fans were convinced that the Wildcats were a lock for their first bowl game since 2010. But then the schedule got real. The final stretch included games with LSU (8-5), Mississippi State (10-3, ranked No. 1 for four weeks), Missouri (11-3, SEC East champs), Georgia (10-3), Tennessee (7-6), and Louisville (9-4). Kentucky lost them all. The 44-40 loss at Louisville was a crusher, because it kept the Wildcats out of a bowl.
“That,” said running back Stanley “Boom” Williams, “was a hard one to take. We didn’t want the season to end. But it did.”
Kentucky went 0-8 in the SEC in 2013, Stoops’s first season. The ‘Cats went 2-6 last season and just missed out on a bowl. This season, said Stoops, Kentucky has to take the next step.
“Things are moving in the right direction, there’s no doubt about that,” said Stoops. “But we are in a results-oriented business. What we are doing has to translate into wins. Our players expect that and our fans expect that. We are embracing the expectations.”
There are some tangible reasons to believe Kentucky can get over that six-win hurdle in 2015.
Towles (6-5, 241) returns after becoming only the fourth quarterback in school history to post over 3,000 yards of total offense in a season. Towles was up and down last season and this spring coaches insisted that the competition was still open between Towles and sophomore Drew Barker, who has had some issues off the field. Expect Towles to be the guy.
Towles will operate under new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who replaces Neal Brown, who became the head coach at Troy. Dawson served as offensive coordinator under Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, but Holgorsen called the plays. The changes at Kentucky on offense won’t be radical, but do expect Dawson to throw the ball down the field a little more than Brown.
“The way that football is played today you just have to do that,” said Dawson. “If you don’t stretch the field vertically then the defense will put eight in the box and you’re always running into their strength. Given the quality of backs that we have, we have to get them some room to run.”
“Boom” Williams got his nickname from his father in high school (George Walton Academy, Monroe, Ga.) because he liked the son’s ability to make big plays. But when he arrived in Lexington the Kentucky coaches told Williams he would have to earn the nickname on the field before they used it. Williams did just that with 1,161 all-purpose yards. He had three games with over 100 yards rushing and showed his explosiveness with three touchdown runs of over 50 yards, including a 56-yard score against Georgia, his home state team.
Williams and JoJo Kemp, who had his best game (17 carries, 131 yards) in the upset win over South Carolina, have both been told that they will have to be more physical in Dawson’s offense.
“There are going to be games when our best chance to win is going to be to pound the football,” said Dawson.
“I loved to hear that,” said Williams.
But here is the brutal truth for Kentucky. If the Wildcats don’t get better on defense, it is going to be hard to win six or more games against that schedule.
The numbers do not lie. A year ago Kentucky was ranked 11th in the SEC in total defense (407.3 ypg), 13th in scoring defense (31.2 ppg), and No. 12 in rushing defense (191.6 ypg). Because Kentucky couldn’t slow down the running game, opponents converted 43.6 percent of their third downs. That was dead last in the SEC and No. 104 (out of 125) in the FBS.
“We have got to do some things in order to get our defense off the field,” said Stoops, who made his coaching bones as a defensive coordinator. “We have to get much better on third down.”
The good news for Kentucky is that eight starters return, including play makers like safety A.J. Stamps (four interceptions) and linebacker Josh Forrest, who led the 2014 team with 110 tackles. Keep your eye on Forrest, a former wide receiver.
The bad news for Kentucky’s defense is that two of the missing starters are ends Bud Dupree, the No. 22 overall pick in the draft (by Pittsburgh), and Za’Darius Smith (4.5 sacks).
“We are going to miss those guys, no doubt about it,” said defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot. “But we’ve recruited well enough that the next guy should be ready to step up.”
Kentucky has three manageable non-conference games (Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, UNC Charlotte). In the conference the Wildcats get Florida, Missouri, Auburn, and Tennessee at home. SEC games on the road are at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. State rival Louisville is in Lexington.
With eight games at home and four on the road, are there six wins on that schedule?
“It all comes down to how you execute down the stretch in the close games,” said Stoops. “We certainly had a chance to win several more games last season if we can make just a play or two.”
In addition to the three overtime loss at Florida, Kentucky was down only by only seven, 38-31, with 2:31 left against No. 1 Mississippi State. But Kentucky’s onsides kick attempt was poorly executed and the Bulldogs ran it back for a touchdown to win 45-31. Towles had an incredible game against Mississippi State with 390 yards passing and another 76 rushing.
Kentucky’s four-point loss to Louisville had seven lead changes.
“That’s just the way it is in the SEC,” said Forrest. “Every game is a war. I just don’t think we’re that far off.”
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