It’s usually not long into football season that folks in Lexington are left counting down the days to basketball. However, Mark Stoops has injected much-needed life into the Kentucky football program through his efforts on the recruiting trail.
Heading into Year 3, Stoops needs to see some of those recruiting victories turn into results on gameday.
Beating South Carolina last season was a tangible measure of progress, and going three overtimes with Florida in Gainesville put some cracks in the foundation of the Gators’ 28-game win streak over the Wildcats.
A series of lopsided losses also served notice that Kentucky is still a long way from SEC contention.
A common challenge for defensive-minded head coaches like Stoops is finding the right formula on offense. To that end, it’s no surprise Kentucky’s offense was nonexistent in losses.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown left to take the head coaching position at Troy, leaving Shannon Dawson in charge. There will be inevitable adjustments to make with a new coordinator, so Kentucky needs to find stability wherever it can.
Quarterback is a good place to start.
Patrick Towles was named starting quarterback Monday, beating out highly regarded prospect Drew Barker.
Towles touted improvements made through his growing pains last season, via the Courier-Journal:
Now, having a year under my belt, playing, I’ve been through it all. I’ve seen everything. I’ve been three overtimes in The Swamp and I’ve been toe to toe with the No. 1 team in the country. I’ve been there. Nothing’s going to surprise me. So I’m excited about going out and playing.
Excitement away from the hardwood can be fleeting in Lexington, however. Towles must find a way to keep the spark ignited throughout a difficult October.
By virtue of its nonconference rivalry with Louisville, Kentucky doesn’t have the option of Mississippi State’ing its way into a bowl game — that is, going 4-0 against a laugher of a nonconference schedule and squeaking in with a 2-6 SEC mark.
Kentucky will be challenged in Week 1 by a very good Louisiana-Lafayette team, which marks a fitting opening to the Wildcats’ first month. The ULL matchup is tough, but the kind of game the Wildcats must win to reach a bowl game — which is exactly what can be said of the ensuing run of at South Carolina, vs. Florida and vs. Missouri.
Eastern Kentucky and a bye provide a buffer before the Wildcats face a gauntlet of Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Georgia. Starting strong is absolutely essential to get UK to Vanderbilt week with hope of reaching the postseason.
A boon to Kentucky is that the SEC East is in a state of flux. South Carolina seems to be trending in the wrong direction, Florida has a new head coach taking over an uncertain situation and Tennessee is still an unproven commodity.
Drawing Florida so early into Jim McElwain’s tenure is a huge positive: Kentucky will end the streak, which serves as a perfect mantle piece to the Wildcats BUYING into the postseason.