On the heels of UK’s 21-17 loss at Vanderbilt, which severely jeopardized UK’s bowl eligibility, and to a lesser extent, jeopardized the sanity of anyone who watched it as well as the long-term future of Mark Stoops as UK’s head coach, it’s time to write the column that I pledged to write last week if the ‘Cats lost. It’s time to look at how to fix this UK program.
I start with the fundamental premise that Mark Stoops is the man for the UK head coaching job. There will be some, particularly if UK loses to Louisville next Saturday, who will dispute even that. And in the end, they may be proven right. But for the reasons that I laid out last week, I think it’s at least too early to say that, and it may do serious damage to the program to say it. But what can change, and what must change to keep Stoops on a forward path? Here’s one writer’s humble thoughts/guesses. 1) Define what a Mark Stoops Kentucky team is about! What is the team’s identity? Three years is too long to not have a clue, but heading into the last two games of this year, that’s what we face. Does he center the team around defense? Not based on some of the games I’ve seen. Are we trying to be an Air Raid team? A power running team? A team that plays smart and wins with special teams? I have no clue even what the plan is, much less what the reality is. We should know the plan, at least vaguely. It took Hal Mumme one drive to reveal his plan. Three years is long enough to start it. 2) Hire a (legitimate) special teams coordinator. The last two years have featured the most consistently bad special teams play imaginable. Kick coverage and punting have been huge disappointments, and UK’s own return teams are either constantly making boneheaded mistakes or returning kicks for very little yardage. It’s not enough to take a guy who has coached for 20 years and call him the special teams guy. Hire a coach. A good one. Kentucky can’t scrimp on one-third of the game. 3) Make another staff move or two. Personally, I think Stoops needs to decide what he’s doing with defense. He and D.J. Eliot seem to be at each other’s throats at times, and the team is stuck in the middle. The comedy of errors in the Auburn game when UK ended up with eight players on the field? Stoops and Eliot stood five yards apart, telling the players different things at the same time. There seems to be a lot of that. I don’t know the dynamic. I don’t know who just kills it in recruiting and who doesn’t, but to me, I’d expect a couple of changes or demotions on the coaching staff. And some will call for Shannon Dawson’s head, but three offensive coordinators in three years won’t help things. Hiring some more experienced assistants who can instill the football IQ to avoid the last few weeks’ mental breakdowns will help. 4) Treat the players the same. This season has been remarkably frustrating because of things like the staff clearly deciding they would sink or swim with Dorian Baker at receiver. Dorian can be a great player. He also can loaf through plays, not fight for tough passes, and drop a frightening number of balls. If Dorian had been a Joker Phillips recruit, he’d be spending the year watching others play. As it is, I find myself wondering who the receivers behind him on the depth chart must have murdered. Because otherwise, they’d be seeing some time. Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, with two games to play, have been handled terribly. Some players fall into the dog house and live there forever. Others, predominantly those recruited by Mark Stoops and his staff, seem to get a much quicker second chance. It’s one team and this stuff has to be destructive. 5) Get serious about strength and conditioning. I do know that Kentucky is getting absolutely killed in the trenches this year. I don’t know if this should be a staff change or a priority change, but between having players getting knocked around like rag dolls and watching Matt Elam huff and puff his way through the game, it’s clear that UK isn’t keeping up with the SEC. 6) Hire another guy, call him quality control, call him whatever. His job is to prevent dumb crap. He can watch and buzz the coaches when a called incompletion is a touchdown. Just so they don’t throw a pick on 2nd and goal from the 2 on the next play. He can buzz the coaches and tell them to call timeout to prevent an open Vandy receiver from scoring on a trick play. He can make sure 11 guys are on the field, help the punt returners know where the 10 yard line is, possibly torture people for lining up offsides on an onside kick. If there’s trouble finding such a guy, I’d work for cheap! WHERE ARE WE—SEC POWER RANKINGS 1. Alabama (9-1) If I doubted you, Nick Saban, I’m sorry. 2. Florida (9-1) They’re really not this good, but Jim McElwain, despite my distrust of his coaching, has done a great job. 3. LSU (7-2) Miles is coaching for his job? LSU’s got some delusional boosters. 4. Arkansas (6-4) Great rally around Bielema for this team. They probably aren’t finished. 5. Ole Miss (7-3) The late-season swoon strikes again. 6. Missisippi State (7-3) They might win the East, but in the West, meh. 7. Tennessee (6-4) Less garbage than most of the East. 8. Georgia (7-3) Mark Richt’s job, on the other hand… I understand. 9. Texas A&M (7-3) They’re probably better than this. Somebody has to go at the bottom of the West. 10. Auburn (5-5) A very disappointing 6-6 awaits. 11. Missouri (5-5) If Auburn’s year was disappointing, Mizzou’s was just weird. May still get six, and I hope so, because Gary Pinkel deserves to go out in a bowl. 12. Vanderbilt (4-6) I don’t believe it. But the proof is in the pudding. 13. Kentucky (4-6) 14. South Carolina (3-7) Still fighting, but tough year. WHERE ARE WE GOING Kentucky plays Charlotte. I could tell you about Charlotte, but this game isn’t about Charlotte. Much like the Vandy game really wasn’t about Vandy. It was about watching UK limp around the field and continue shooting itself in the foot for 3.5 hours. Drew Barker is the quarterback now. It will probably work well this week. Not so much for next week. I’m not concerned about winning, I’m not concerned about the score, I’m concerned about seeing some hint of an identity. Maybe Barker is at the middle of that, maybe he isn’t. UK 38, Charlotte 14 MY OTHER (COMPLETELY CLUELESS) SEC PREDICTIONS The only thing more disappointing than this season for me has been the predictions. I went 4-4 last week, which drops me to 62-24 for the season. At this point last year, I was 66-16. This week’s guesstimates: Florida 49, Florida Atlantic 3 South Carolina 38, Citadel 7 LSU 31, Ole Miss 28 Alabama 45, Charleston Southern 7 Auburn 41, Idaho 10 Georgia 35, Georgia Southern 14 Arkansas 38, Mississippi State 31 Missouri 22, Tennessee 21 Kentucky 38, Charlotte 14 Texas A&M 38, Vanderbilt 10 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 email@example.com