Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops, center, argues with referee Reggie Smith, left, during the first half of the TaxSlayer Bowl NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Stephen B. Morton
January 01, 2017

Kentucky became respectable and broke .500 to reach its first bowl game in six seasons.

Up next for coach Mark Stoops is returning to the postseason and making the Wildcats competitive in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division. It's a tough task, but the fact they looked poised to challenge at one point speaks volumes about their progress.

Kentucky (7-6, 4-4 SEC) reached its highest victory total since 2009 and earned four league wins for the first time in 10 years. While the Wildcats' long-sought postseason experience ended with a 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday in the TaxSlayer Bowl, Stoops envisioned bigger things for a squad buoyed by the confidence of winning after consecutive 5-7 finishes.

''There's an awful lot we can build from,'' Stoops said. ''I'm so proud of this team, these players, everybody. We've come a long way.''

Kentucky certainly made strides from a dreadful 0-2 start.

A blown 25-point lead in a season-opening loss to Southern Mississippi was followed by a 45-7 thumping at Florida, fueling speculation about Stoops' future. The fourth-year coach simply tuned out the noise about his status and urged his team to do the same and focus on regrouping.

''I appreciate our players because when it was 0-2, the criticism we got was deserved,'' the coach added. ''You have to be strong enough to overcome that. Our players were. Our team was.''

The Wildcats regrouped to win seven of their final 11 games - highlighted by a 41-38 upset at rival and then-No. 11 Louisville in the regular-season finale - and experienced football in December.

Stoops' increased involvement in the defense helped turn around a unit that had allowed more than 500 yards per game early on. First-year offensive coordinator Eddie Gran adjusted his scheme after sophomore quarterback Drew Barker sustained a back injury early in the third game that ultimately ended his season.

The Wildcats absorbed some setbacks but began to believe in themselves after rallying to beat Mississippi State with a last-second field goal.

That was especially apparent on offense as Kentucky's deep backfield yielded its first pair of 1,000-yard rushers in junior Boom Williams (1,170, seven TDs) and freshman Benny Snell (1,091, team-high 13 TDs). They led an attack that tied a 67-year-old school record with 30 rushing TDs.

Their emergence into a formidable rushing tandem eased the transition for junior transfer Stephen Johnson at QB, whose own mobility yielded combined totals of 2,364 yards and 16 TDs. That included a 21-yard TD run that kept things competitive late against Tech.

The Wildcats' ground game now belongs to the hard-charging Snell following Williams' announcement after the game that he will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft. Barker is expected to recover by the spring but Johnson made a strong case to remain the starter behind center.

Kentucky will return 36 of 44 players on its two-deep roster, giving Stoops the continuity he believes can take his team to the next level. For now, the Wildcats can boast that they won more often than not for the first time in a while.

''The bowl loss is disappointing, but you learn from a loss,'' said tackles leader Jordan Jones, who echoed his coach's belief of how far the team came. ''I think we are becoming a better team and this is going to make us better for next year.''

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