Are the Tennessee Volunteers legitimate contenders in the SEC East?
2:44 | College Football
Are the Tennessee Volunteers legitimate contenders in the SEC East?
Wednesday July 13th, 2016

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HOOVER, Ala. — Before diving into Day 3 of SEC Media Days, let’s take a moment to read a few words from Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops:

“I talked about progress,” Stoops said. “I talked about improvement. And I don't want anybody to take away from our team’s improvement from a year ago. We have a long way to go. I knew what I was doing when I took this job, and I’m very optimistic about where we’re at and where we’re going.”

Those words probably sound familiar to Wildcat football fans. Stoops has been knee-deep in a tedious resurrection of Big Blue football for more than three years in Lexington. He’s tasked with reversing the culture at Kentucky and making the program relevant again in the SEC. Progress and improvement are buzzwords within a rebuilding job, and Stoops believes his program isn’t far from contending in the SEC.

But here’s the surprise: the words above didn’t come from Stoops on Wednesday at SEC Media Days. Those comments took place during last year’s Media Days, on July 15, 2015. Now here is what Stoops told reporters on Wednesday about his 2016 team:

“We’ve done the work,” Stoops said. “We have the pieces in place. We will take the next step. I’ve been proud of the progression we’ve done. Certainly you want more wins along the line, but I know we’ve done the right things and we have a great plan in place to continue to push this program, and the players are doing the things necessary to take it to the next step. So we’re excited about that and ready to move forward.”

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Notice any similarities? If you didn’t know better, you’d think Stoops’s assessment of Kentucky a year ago was strikingly similar to how he feels about his program today. In fact, the parallels between the Wildcats’ past two seasons are staggering: hot starts (5–1 in 2014, 4–1 in 2015), second-half deflations (0–6 in 2014, 1–6 in 2015) and identical 5–7 records. It’s no wonder Stoops’s talking points haven’t changed much in a year’s time.

But as Stoops enters his fourth year in Lexington, a little soul-searching might be needed. It’s hard to argue the culture hasn’t changed at Kentucky. Stoops has landed record-setting recruiting classes and improved the Wildcats’ from a 2–10 record during his first season in 2013. Plus, the school undertook a $120 million facelift to Commonwealth Stadium last fall and will soon cut the ribbon on a shiny new $45 million training center. But while Kentucky’s growth is evident in some areas, it’s not as evident in at least one: wins. Despite hot starts the past two seasons, the Wildcats have yet to reach a bowl game under Stoops. This fall Stoops desperately needs a postseason appearance to keep the process rolling at Kentucky, where the winning must finally catch up to the potential.

“We’ve been close,” Stoops said Wednesday. “We’re tired of being close.”

Last season felt uncomfortably familiar to many in Big Blue Nation. Kentucky started 4–1 with two SEC wins over South Carolina and Missouri. But on Thursday, Oct. 15 the Wildcats dropped a nationally televised home meeting with Auburn by a slim 30–27 margin. That result kicked off a string of six losses in seven games, including a 38–24 setback against rival Louisville at home in the regular-season finale. A year earlier, the Wildcats carried a 5–1 record into the meat of their SEC schedule, hoping for their first bowl game since 2010. Instead, Kentucky suffered six straight losses to end the year.

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Two straight disappointing finishes came to define Kentucky football in the SEC. But on Wednesday at SEC Media Days, Stoops pushed back when a reporter used the word collapse to describe the Cats last two campaigns. “I don’t think I would ever use that word,” Stoops said, “because they weren’t.” While it’s true Kentucky faced stiffer competition late in those seasons, the Cats goal is to avoid a similar collapse—or whatever Stoops wants to call it—in 2016. “Guys don’t want that same feeling we had before,” senior running back Jojo Kemp said. “Going 5–7, going 5–7, being so close and not being able to finish.”

The program sought to alter that trend this off-season. Stoops fired offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson after last fall and replaced him with Eddie Gran from Cincinnati, UK’s third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. The Wildcats also added two other assistants in Darin Hinshaw (quarterbacks) and Lamar Thomas (receivers). The hope is that a staff shakeup will light a fire under an anemic Cats’ offense, which finished 10th in the SEC (5.47 yards per play) in 2015. At Media Days, Kemp and senior center Jon Toth had high praise for Gran’s strict approach to practice. “If we’re not doing something his way,” Kemp said, “he’s not having it.”

This season feels particularly important to players like Kemp, a senior who began his Kentucky career the same season (2013) in which Stoops kicked off his rebuilding job. Kemp has seen the dog days of Big Blue football; now he wants to cap his career as a cornerstone of the Wildcats’ new era. “You know, nobody said it was going to be easy,” Kemp said. “That’s a lot for a high school student to come here and take on a job this big. We know what we need to do. We know the feeling. We know what it feels like to be so close and not get the job done.”

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Speaking to crowds at media days, the Wildcats seemed excited about their offense in 2016. Stoops tabbed sophomore Drew Barker as the team’s starting quarterback after spring practice. Barker played in five games in 2015, taking over as the starter for Patrick Towles for the final two contests. (Towles later transferred to Boston College). But Barker takes the reins of an offense that brings back nine starters, including running back Stanley “Boom” Williams (7.1 yards per carry last season), Kemp and four veterans on the offensive line. The bigger question comes on defense, where just four starters reprise their roles from the SEC’s 12th best unit.

If Stoops worries about Kentucky’s long-term viability in the SEC, he didn’t show it on Wednesday. The coach’s belief remains palpable. “I knew what I was getting into from day one,” Stoops said, “and I feel as good about this situation at Kentucky right now as I did when I walked in the door. It’s a great place with a great future. It’s difficult, but tell me one place where it’s not difficult.”

What’s difficult for Kentucky’s players to imagine is further disappointment, being so close to the postseason but watching it disappear once again. That’s why the Wildcats are taking a blue-collar approach to the off-season. On Wednesday, when a reporter asked the affable Kemp to offer a preview of his favorite touchdown dance, the running back grinned. “You want to see the moves? Kemp said. “I ain’t gonna give ‘em to you. This is business.”

In 2016, it’s time for Kentucky to take care of business.

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