Kentucky hopes bowl appearance leads to bigger things in SEC
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky's mindset has progressed from maybe to what's next.
Winning games that used to slip from the Wildcats' grasp in recent years has changed the culture and players are raising the bar for expectations.
No, Kentucky probably isn't quite ready to proclaim itself a contender for the Southeastern Conference East Division title. But after finishing 7-6 and reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2010, the Wildcats believe they're finally headed in the right direction.
''Going into year five, we ought to be better in all areas,'' coach Mark Stoops said. ''You've heard me talk about it many times. Build a winning culture, build a strong football team, select the right players and then develop them when they're here. ... We should be stronger in all those areas.''
Nothing has come easy for Kentucky, which endured consecutive 5-7 finishes including heartbreaking season-ending losses to rival Louisville.
Gutting out a last-second victory over Mississippi State last fall saved the season and gave the Wildcats (4-4 SEC) confidence to win close games. Their 41-38 victory over then-No. 11 Cardinals and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson marked another breakthrough that Kentucky aims to build on this year.
''It meant a lot to us, knowing we could beat the best of the best,'' said senior quarterback Stephen Johnson, who went 5-4 as a starter and won two other games after relieving an injured Drew Barker.
''Just the whole confidence going into that game and into this season, we know we can do a lot of things.''
Johnson leads an offense that emerged as one of the SEC's most explosive. Joining him is sophomore running back Benny Snell, who rushed for school freshman records of 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns.
With fellow 1,000-yard rusher Stanley ''Boom'' Williams off to the NFL, Kentucky's ground game starts with Snell. He'll be carrying a lot of expectations along with the ball.
Other things to watch as Kentucky aims to build off a winning season:
NEW DEFENSIVE CZAR: Matt House was promoted after one year as an assistant to succeed D.J. Eliot, who left for a similar job at Colorado. Having helped install his predecessor's philosophy, nothing should change under House, who will continue coaching the inside linebackers. Also new are special teams coordinator/outside linebackers coach Dean Hood, formerly head coach at nearby Eastern Kentucky; and defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc (pronounced luh-blon), who worked last year at North Texas.
LOVE CONNECTION: Senior linebacker Courtney Love hopes to make a name for himself on the watch list for the Lott Trophy and other national awards. A similarly named famous rock star is also tracking the third-leading tackler's progress. Courtney Love Cobain, actress and lead singer of the band Hole and widow of rocker Kurt Cobain, tweeted her ''appreciation'' for being nominated this summer and joked, ''I am so honored by this. I've trained so hard.'' The player has had fun with it and invited the singer to a game this season after making 76 tackles as a junior.
KEY GAMES: Florida visits on Sept. 23, while Tennessee (Oct. 28) and Mississippi (Nov. 4) come to Lexington in consecutive weeks. Kentucky also hosts Louisville and Jackson on Nov. 25, seeking to make it two in a row over the Cardinals.
OLD HOME, NEW NAME: The 44-year-old home field formerly known as Commonwealth Stadium was renamed Kroger Field in May after the school agreed to a partnership deal with the Cincinnati-based grocer. Fans might need time to transition from calling it Commonwealth.
PREDICTION: The non-conference schedule should help Kentucky win at least seven games and earn another bowl bid. If the Wildcats snap long losing streaks against Florida and Tennessee, contending for the SEC East title looks possible.
SEASON OPENER: Kentucky visits Southern Miss on Sept. 2, hoping to avenge last year's 44-35 loss in which it blew a 35-10 lead.
More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org
Follow Gary B. Graves on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GaryBGraves