For the Kentucky Wildcats, Saturday’s game with Vanderbilt at Nashville feels a lot like the crossroads of the season, if not the Mark Stoops era. For the second straight year, Kentucky has followed a solid, even a very good first half of the schedule with a lackluster home stretch. But here’s the thing. It isn’t, even if Kentucky loses.
No doubt, there’s plenty of vested interest in winning this game. If Kentucky wins, a bowl bid is all but guaranteed. If they lose, going bowling would involve beating Louisville in two weeks, which right this minute seems unlikely for a team that is getting blasted by mid-tier SEC opponents.
But it’s time for the big picture talk. Enough so that I’m dispensing with the normal format of the column to answer a certain type of fan — we’ll call my fictional fan Negative Nancy. Nancy loves UK basketball, especially during football season. She has clamored for Drew Barker to play since Week Two. She warned everybody about this late-season collapse, and she has the answer. We need to fire Mark Stoops. And Negative Nancy is wrong — not just the run-of-the-mill talking-out-her-rear-end kind of wrong. The dangerous kind of wrong. The destructive kind of wrong. And now I’ll tell her why.
The last three weeks have shown a multitude of issues within the Kentucky program. Mental mistakes abound, physical mistakes abound. The players aren’t very good and they aren’t playing very hard or very well. But the problem isn’t Mark Stoops. Sure, UK needs to be more mentally engaged. Sure, effort shouldn’t be optional. But UK football’s biggest problem, as it has been for the full 35 years of my life, isn’t motivation. It isn’t X’s and O’s. It’s Jimmys and Joes.
In 1997, when Hal Mumme took the UK job, I remember a reporter asking him about lacking some of the pieces to fully implement his offense. Mumme ad-libbed some kind of funny comment about playing chess without a full chess set. You just pretend a bottle cap is a knight and a quarter is the rook, and you do your best. And that, in a nutshell, is what coaching UK football is. Year after year, game after game, UK has too few knights and rooks, and a lot of bottle caps that we’re pretending are knights or rooks. It’s not that UK doesn’t have any talent. They do. It’s just that their opponents—particularly in the part of the schedule that has “caused” the late-season swoon—aren’t just chess pieces, they’re bionic machines designed to destroy other chess pieces.
Getting better in the SEC is a tall task. There’s a reason that UK hasn’t posted a winning SEC season in my lifetime. The other foes aren’t going to lie back and accept UK being good. They want the best players, they hire the best coaches, and in most instances, they’ve poured a lot more money and resources into making great football programs than UK has.
Now, one more point to make. This isn’t to poor-mouth. Negative Nancy has a cousin who you’ll encounter in the fan base—we’ll call him Basketball Bobby. Basketball Bobby also loves basketball. He loves basketball so much that he doesn’t understand why anybody bothers following UK football. It’s not good, it hasn’t been good. It can’t be good. Kentucky is a poor recruiting ground, and it’s impossible for them to meaningfully gain ground in the SEC. They might go 7-5 now and again, but that’s as good as it gets. I think Basketball Bobby is wrong too—with a caveat.
In today’s instant gratification society, Basketball Bobby might be right—if Kentucky doesn’t give a qualified coach a chance to build something. If UK starts swapping coaches every three seasons, then yes, 7-5 is as good as it gets. Building the roots to get above that particular hump is possible. It just takes time and dedication.
For example, let’s consider Frank Beamer. He inherited a traditionally downtrodden Virginia Tech team and led them to national relevance. But he didn’t do it overnight. Check out Beamer’s annual records from his first six years at Virginia Tech: 2-9, 3-8, 6-4-1, 6-5, 5-6, 2-8-1. So what happened there? Two years of awful football. Three years of decent, but not great, football. Neither of those six-win seasons resulted in bowl games back then, by the way. And yes, in year SIX, the Hokies were 2-8-1. They beat James Madison and Temple.
I don’t have a time machine, but I can virtually guarantee you that in 1992, there were plenty of people in Virginia who wanted to fire a coach whose team went 2-8-1 and who hadn’t reached a bowl game in his six years. But Virginia Tech did a funny thing-- a thing that drives Negative Nancy and Basketball Bobby both nuts. They waited.
Beamer’s next six years? 9-3, 8-4, 10-2, 10-2, 7-5, 9-3. And the next two years after THAT were both 11-1 seasons that ended with Tech in the top five and the national title picture. But if Virginia Tech had not had the courage to endure the lean times, they would have never become what they are. Sure, they might have hired a new guy who could’ve won seven or eight games once or twice. But that would’ve been the limit of the thing.
Now if Negative Nancy or Basketball Bobby are still reading, I know their heads are exploding. How do we know that Mark Stoops is Frank Beamer? What if he’s more like Derek Dooley or Joker Phillips? Well, that, unfortunately, is a good point. I don’t know that Mark Stoops is Frank Beamer. There’s a good chance that he isn’t. It’s his first head coaching job (Beamer had previously been head coach at Murray State), and he is receiving some difficult on-the-job training. But his recruiting has been excellent, and there are reasons to have optimism about his coaching.
But at the end of the day, you either subscribe to Basketball Bobby’s gameplan (which many do) or you have the stubborn nagging belief that there is something better to be had. If you’re dreaming about All-Americans and New Year’s Day Bowl Games, and SEC titles, then you’re going to have to find a coach and invest in him. Why not now?
Mark Stoops will keep his job, even if Kentucky loses the next three games. He has at least one more season, and I’m not sure that he doesn’t deserve more. That will probably depend on the next 15 to 17 games, I suppose. But how to fix UK’s problems? Fear not, Negative Nancy and Basketball Bobby, I will address that question. If UK wins on Saturday, I’ll do it after the season. If they lose, we’ll dive right into that topic. Set your watch on it.
WHERE ARE WE—SEC POWER RANKINGS
1.. Alabama (8-1) Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. 2. LSU (7-1) Still solidly the second best team in the SEC. 3. Florida (8-1) You beat Vandy by two and UK by five and you win the East. I don’t know. 4. Mississippi State (7-2) There’s still a Mississippi school that can make things interesting. 5. Arkansas (5-4) I wouldn’t want to play them right now. 6. Ole Miss (7-3) So they beat Alabama and end up 7-5? 7. Texas A&M (6-3) See Auburn comment below. 8. Tennessee (5-4) Again, they’re going 8-4. Still not sure they’re very good. 9. Auburn (5-4) What a weird season for them. 10. Georgia (6-3) They won, and still didn’t impress me. 11. Kentucky (4-5) Biggest game of the Stoops era yet. 12. South Carolina (3-6) Fought gamely at Tennessee, but just not quite talented enough. 13. Vanderbilt (3-6) Probably better than I think they are. 14. Missouri (4-5) Well, at least their team is going to play. I guess.
WHERE ARE WE GOING
I’m not a gambler, but the fact that you can wager actual green American dollars on the proposition that UK and Vandy will score less than 39 points on Saturday makes me think I should be.
Kentucky’s 12th-in-the-SEC offense will taken on Vandy’s 13th ranked group. Thank goodness for Missouri, eh? Only Mizzou passes for less yards than Vandy or runs for less yards than Kentucky. Vandy has topped 17 points once all season, against Austin Peay. They have scored 27 points in their last four games. COMBINED. But oh, they play defense. Offensively, it’s sophomore running back Ralph Webb’s show. Webb has 811 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the year. He is also tied for second in receptions and has two touchdowns through the air. Quarterback Johnny McCrary is athletic, but has been awful for much of the year. Receiver Trent Sherfield leads Vandy with 41 catches for 518 yards.
Defensively, Vandy holds opponents to 3.4 yards per carry and has allowed only six passing touchdowns all year. They do have just four interceptions, they have been effective, as opponents average just 316 yards per game in total offense (UK’s defense has allowed 412 yards per game).
A hidden key in this game is that Vandy is incredibly slow-starting offensively. They’ve scored just nine first quarter points all season. If UK can get a lead and play from ahead, they’ll be in good shape.
This is a game where UK needs to establish some sort of identity. Who plays quarterback, who runs the ball, how the defense reacts—there are plenty of questions. There are good reasons that Vandy is favored in Vegas. But UK just might have an answer.
UK 17, Vanderbilt 14
MY OTHER (COMPLETELY CLUELESS) SEC PREDICTIONS
A 4-3 week was not one of my finer moments. I’m at 58-20 for the season. This week’s guesstimates:
Auburn 27, Georgia 21 Florida 28, South Carolina 13 Tennessee 49, North Texas 3 Alabama 35, Mississippi State 27 Kentucky 17, Vanderbilt 14 Texas A&M 45, Western Carolina 0 LSU 31, Arkansas 21 BYU 35, Missouri 14
Joe Cox is contributing editor for KySportsStyle.com. He grew up in Letcher County and Bell County, and has written four books involving UK sports, and the newest one "The Kentucky Wildcat Fans’ Bucket List" (with Ryan Clark), is on sale now. Joe is an attorney and lives in Logan County with his wife and children. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org