On Saturday afternoon the Kentucky Wildcats play for the SEC East title against the Georgia Bulldogs. For many in the Big Blue Nation it is a day they never thought would come. One of the main reasons is the athletic department’s willingness to stand by Coach Mark Stoops. It has taken six years to get to the this point but we are going to show how patience paid off for Kentucky football.
How Patience Paid Off For Kentucky Football
A Little History Lesson
Going back to 2012 Joker Phillips was in his third season as Kentucky coach. Phillips accomplished some good things while in Lexington. In 2010 he became the first coach to defeat a Steve Spurrier led team with a 31-28 win over South Carolina. That team finished 6-7 and made it to the Birmingham Bowl. The next season he accomplished something even bigger, beating Tennessee 10-7 to break a 26 game losing streak.
However, by year three the wheels had completely come off. The Cats finished 2-10 on the season and 0-8 in the conference. Following a 40-0 loss to Vanderbilt in a barely half full Commonwealth Stadium, athletic director Mitch Barnhart had seen enough. Phillips was informed he would not be back and the quest was on for a new coach.
The New Man In Charge
After a nationwide search Barnhart found his man in Stoops. At the time he was the defensive coordinator for Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. Year in and year out the Seminoles had one of the best units in college football. In addition, he came from a great coaching family. At the time, oldest brother Bob was winning championships at Oklahoma and middle brother Mike coached eight years at Arizona.
At his introductory press conference on December 2, 2012 Stoops said the goal is “to play in the SEC title game. Correction: not just to play but to play and win.” He also said “we have to build that foundation with defense.” While many across the country laughed at that idea it isn’t so far fetched now.
In 2018 under defensive coordinator Matt House the Wildcats rank number one in the nation is scoring defense. For the season, Kentucky is only allowing 13 points per game. Furthermore no opponent has scored more than 20 in a contest this year. Senior outside linebacker Josh Allen leads the way on defense and is now projected as a top 10 pick in next year’s draft.
#Kentucky EDGE Josh Allen leads FBS edge defenders with 150+ pass-rush snaps in overall grade (92.7), pass-rush grade (94.3), win rate (28.4) and pressure percentage (24.3%) so far this season.
He's, umm, #good.
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) October 30, 2018
A Rocky Start
As a result of taking over a program near rock bottom, Stoops struggled in his first season going 2-10. Most True Blue Fans were willing to give him a pass due to what he had inherited. In 2014 Kentucky started the season 5-1 with the one loss coming in three overtimes at Florida. However the Cats faded down the stretch losing their final six to finish 5-7.
The following season Kentucky again got off to a hot start at 4-1 with wins over South Carolina and Missouri. Unfortunately Stoops’ squad struggled in the second half of the season and again finished 5-7. The final game of the year was especially painful as the Cats blew a 21-0 lead to Louisville, falling 38-24. Even with the late season struggles, Barnhart stayed with Stoops. Though there were a coupe of watershed moments you are going to see how patience paid off for Kentucky football.
Finally Turning The Corner
In his fourth season and with a team of almost all his own recruits bigger things were expected of the Cats in 2016. However the team started 0-2 losing at home to Southern Miss and were blown out at Florida. After struggling to beat a bad New Mexico State squad there were rumblings Stoops could be out.
Behind new quarterback Stephen Johnson, who had replaced the injured Drew Barker, Kentucky knocked off South Carolina 17-10 in a game Stoops had to have. Later in the season with a 3-3 record Kentucky defeated Mississippi State 40-38 on a last second field goal by Austin MacGinnis. Stoops later told the media he thought he was done had the Cats not won that game.
Following that win, the Wildcats finished the season strong making it to the TaxSlayer Bowl, the school’s first bowl since 2009. Though they lost the game 33-18 to Georgia Tech ,Stoops and the Cats finally broke through. In addition to posting a 7-6 record the Cats finished at .500 for the first time in a decade in the SEC.
Patience Shown By The Players
At the conclusion of a second straight 7-6 season several of the squad’s top players had decisions to make. After discussing it with family and the staff Allen, C.J. Conrad, Mike Edwards and Jordan Jones all decided to return for their senior seasons. When asked why, they all said “we think we are on the verge of something big here.” They added “we want to play for an SEC Championship.”
Over the last few years the Big Blue Nation has had several players leave early or transfer to another school. By returning to school these players have become favorites showing their dedication to the program. While no one has helped their draft status more than Allen, look for all four to hear their names called in the 2019 NFL Draft.
A True Rarity In Sports
“He was given the time to do it and he’s done it the way he wanted.” Those were the words of Missouri coach Barry Odom when asked about Stoops. In six seasons at Kentucky Stoops has either equaled or surpassed the previous year’s win total. In addition he is one of only three coaches to go bowling three straight years. The others are Bear Bryant and Rich Brooks. Last week they clinched their first winning record in the SEC since 1977.
The “win now” mentality is more prevalent than ever in sports today. Despite huge buyouts coaching changes happen at a rapid pace. As an example Wildcat fans need look no farther than down I-75 and the Tennessee Volunteers. The firing of Butch Jones and the disastrous search for a new coach was so bad they wrote a book about it.
The fact is Barnhart stayed with Stoops and now that patience has paid off for Kentucky football. When the first playoff rankings were announced this week the Cats sat at number nine. This is Kentucky’s first ever ranking.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) October 30, 2018
Can The Cats Shock The World?
Almost six years to the day Joker Phillips was let go, Kentucky plays for the SEC East championship against Georgia. While the Cats are almost two touchdown underdogs they wouldn’t have it any other way. Already this season Kentucky has won as a touchdown or more underdog three times.
One week ago the defense held Drew Lock and the high powered Missouri offense to zero first downs in the second half. As a result Kentucky was able to rally from a 14-3 deficit to win 15-14. In winning a game the Cats never do they showed they are a potential team of destiny. Behind Jake Fromm the Wildcat defense is going to be tested more than they have been all year. In the biggest game in most Kentucky fans’ lifetimes the Cats punch their ticket to Atlanta.
Kentucky 21 Georgia 17
Thanks for letting us show you how patience paid off for Kentucky football here at Last Word On College Football. We’ll have a recap of the Georgia game and get you ready for the battle against Tennessee next week.